Capturing images of our home planet from the perspective of faraway spacecraft has become a tradition at NASA, ever since Voyager, 28 years ago, displayed our “pale blue dot” in the vastness of space.
But the view of Earth from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is quite something else.
This Kepler image of Earth was recently beamed back home. Captured on Dec. 10, 2017, after the spacecraft adjusted its telescope to a new field of view, Earth’s reflection as it slipped past was so extraordinarily bright that it created a saber-like saturation bleed across the instrument’s sensors, obscuring the neighboring Moon.
At 94 million miles away, Kepler’s interpretation of Earth as a bright flashlight in a dark sea of stars demonstrates the capabilities of its highly sensitive photometer, which is designed to pick up the faint dips in brightness of planets crossing distant stars. Some stars in this image are hundreds of light years away.
The scientific community celebrated Earth’s transit across Kepler’s field of view by using #WaveAtKepler on social media. As Kepler only takes pictures in black and white, some in the science community have taken the data and used color to highlight details in grayscale images.
The mission marks its nine-year anniversary in space on March 7, 2018. More than 2,500 planets have been found in the Kepler data so far, as well as many other discoveries about stars, supernovae and other astrophysical phenomena. The mission is in its second extended operating phase and is known to have a limited lifetime. Its scientific success in discovering distant planets has paved the way for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is launching on April 16. TESS will monitor more than 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars outside our solar system for transiting planets.
As the Syrian regime sets its sights on the last remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib, the Russian Defense Ministry in at least the last week of August 2018 has pushed a narrative about possible upcoming staged chemical attacks in the rebel-held province.
“Russian MoD: White Helmets Preparing to Stage Chemical Attack in Idlib” read one headline by Sputnik, a Russian state-owned media outlet, on Aug. 28, 2018.
“US plans to use fake chemical weapons attack to strike Syria – Russian MoD,” one headline by the Russian state-owned media outlet RT read on Aug. 27, 2018.
The list goes on, and it’s a sign chemical attacks may be launched again — but this time in Idlib, the last Syrian rebel stronghold fighting the Assad regime.
“E Ghouta Militants Plan to Stage Chemical Attack to Blame Gov’t – Damascus,” read one Sputnik headline in mid-March 2018, about a month before the Ghouta chemical attack that killed dozens.
“This is textbook,” Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, told Business Insider. “They have done this consistently in the lead up to the use of chemical weapons. So I think it’s a serious possibility that they will use it again.”
A child is treated for suspected chemical gas poisoning in Douma, Syria on April 8, 2018.
“Assad and Russia don’t use chemical weapons simply for the sake of using chemical weapons,” Cafarella said. “They intend to cause an effect with chemical weapons that they then can exploit by advancing on the ground.”
Nevertheless, it’s still an open question as to whether an attack on Idlib will actually happen.
“The Turks are blocking the offensive,” Cafarella said. “The Turks and Russians continue to frame their discussion from the lens of cooperation, but that’s not actually what’s happening.”
Cafarella said that Turkey may allow a partial offensive in Idlib, but that Ankara can’t afford “to have another massive Syrian refugee flow towards the Turkish border.”
On Aug. 30, 2018, the United Nations called on Russia, Turkey, and Iran to hold off on the Idlib assault, fearing a humanitarian disaster for the province’s nearly 3 million civilians, and that chemical weapons could be used by either the Syrian regime or militants themselves.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
The US Missile Defense Agency just issued a bold request for proposals for a missile defense system that could change the game and act like a silver bullet against North Korean missile launches.
The MDA asked for proposals to build a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft capable of flying higher than 63,000 feet and carrying a laser to shoot down ballistic missiles as they arc upwards towards the sky.
While the laser system sounds like something out of science fiction, and is something the US Navy has struggled to field for over a decade, Ricky Ellison of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance told Business Insider that this drone could be the perfect application of the technology.
“What it can do is intercept missiles in the boost phase, therefore you don’t need to have billion dollar radars all over the world to intercept with 80 million dollar interceptors,” said Ellison.
Ballistic missiles fly high into earth’s atmosphere before breaking apart, often releasing multiple reentry vehicles, countermeasures, and decoys. This makes them a nightmare for traditional missile defense systems which track the launch and then fire interceptor vehicles to smash them apart upon reentry.
Another possible design for the laser interceptor. Photo from missilethreat.csis.org
Even the top-of-the-line THAAD system, recently sent to South Korea, would struggle to destroy a large salvo from North Korea, and the price of installing and using the entire system, interceptors included, would cost into the billions. Additionally, THAAD’s high-powered radar capability makes China extremely nervous, as they believe it could limit their ability to respond to a nuclear strike from the US.
Meanwhile, a solid state laser can be fired continuously for dollars a minute, about what you’d pay for electricity in your home. Though building the platform would cost millions in research, development, and testing.
Traditionally, while boost-phase interception looks more attractive on paper because it hits the missile in a more vulnerable stage, it’s been impractical because the interceptor has to be close to the projectile.
So there’s just no way the US could intercept a missile fired from central Russia or China in its boost phase. With a small country like North Korea though, US drones right off the border could melt down missiles with a light-speed weapon in the cloudless upper atmosphere.
“This would be far more efficient to have boost-phase intercept capability over that territory at that height to handle that,” said Ellison. “As North Korea develops countermeasures, decoys, multiple reentry vehicles, and all the things that will continue to evolve, you have a great opportunity to eliminate all those advancing technologies before all that gets dispersed.”
The MDA hopes to field this technology by 2023, at which point most experts agree North Korea will have perfected an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation to crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017 set the stage for him to pursue aggressive policies that included confrontations with many rivals around the region.
But changes to the royal line of succession and decisions by the 32-year-old crown prince at home and abroad have undermined the kingdom’s longstanding stability and left him in doubt about his own safety, according to Bruce Riedel, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project.
Prince Mohammed is reportedly aware of the growing enmity.
“Fearing for his security, the crown prince is said to spend many nights on his half-billion-dollar yacht moored in Jeddah,” Riedel wrote for Al-Monitor, where he is a columnist.
Prince Mohammed reportedly dropped a half-billion dollars on the 440-foot-long yacht, named Serene, in late 2016 after spotting it while vacationing in the south of France.
He bought it from a Russian billionaire who moved out the day the deal was signed, and the vessel includes two helipads, an indoor climbing wall, a fully equipped spa, and three swimming pools.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.
(DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)
But Prince Mohammed bought it as he helped push severe austerity at home, including major spending cuts and a freeze on government contracts. Such spending is often used to quell dissent.
“It’s a floating palace longer than a football field and with many perks,” Riedel wrote of the yacht. “It is also a potential escape hatch.”
‘A foolish and dangerous approach’
The main foreign-policy issues that have raised ire toward Prince Mohammed are the now four-year-old war in Yemen — his signature initiative — and the blockade of Qatar.
Criticism of Prince Mohammed’s bloody and disastrous war in Yemen, which has subjected many Yemenis to famine and disease, has been brewing inside Saudi Arabia for months, according to Riedel.
A video of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz — the half-brother of King Salman, the father of Prince Mohammed — publicly blaming Prince Mohammed for the war went viral in the kingdom in September 2018.
Saudi Arabia’s turn on Qatar reportedly came as a surprise to many US officials, frustrating them even as US President Donald Trump castigated the Qataris. The blockade has been unwelcome within Saudi Arabia — one cleric has been arrested and faces execution for criticizing it — and has split the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riedel wrote.
Prince Mohammed’s roundup of powerful business executives and members of the royal family in 2017 may have been his biggest domestic miscalculation. It spooked investors and led to capital flight, diminishing confidence in Prince Mohammed’s ability to manage economic issues.
President Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and members of his delegation, March 14, 2017.
(Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Among the dozens of businessmen and princes who were arrested was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the leader of the Saudi national guard, the kingdom’s premier fighting force, which, along with the campaign in Yemen, may further alienate Prince Mohammed from the military.
The removal of Prince Mutaib was seen as likely to stir discontent, and Salman’s moves, particularly the roundup, have fed the impression inside the kingdom of Salman “as someone who has disturbed the status quo for the sake of massive personal enrichment and political aggrandizement,” according to Rosie Bsheer, a history professor at Yale.
Salman remains the most likely heir as long as his father is alive, but his actions have helped make the kingdom the least stable it has been in 50 years, according to Riedel. Should King Salman, now 81, die in the near future, succession could be disputed, and the process to appoint the next king could turn violent.
“The Trump administration has given Saudi Arabia a blank check and supports its war in Yemen,” Riedel wrote. “The crown prince has been touted by the White House. It’s a foolish and dangerous approach.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Every second Saturday of December, the soldiers of West Point settle their differences with the sailors and Marines of Annapolis in a good, old-fashioned football game. It’s a fiercely heated contest — and not just for the players on the field, but between entire branches.
Remember, when it comes to the troops, any little thing that can be used as bragging rights will be — even the uniforms are a type of competition. Traditionally, each team dons a new military history-inspired uniform for the Army-Navy game. Bringing the best threads to the gridiron isn’t officially a contest, but if it were, hot damn the Army would be winning.
It’s unclear at this time if all Cadets on the field will be wearing the Black Lion or just the ones wearing the 28th Infantry Regiment on their lapel.
(West Point Athletics)
This year, the soldiers are honoring the First Infantry Division by sporting a uniform inspired by the Big Red One. It was chosen because 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. While there were many American units that fought, several of whom are still around, the 1st ID is often heralded for their decisive victory at the Battle of Cantigny.
The iconic Black Lions of Cantigny have been incorporated into the shoulders of the uniforms. The rest of the uniform is a flat black with red trimmings. It features, of course, the Nike logo (the team’s sponsor) and the unit insignia. On the collars are insignias that represent the various regiments of the 1st Infantry Division that fought in World War I.
On the back of the helmet, if you look closely, you’ll spot a subtle American flag. Sharp football fans will notice that the flag only has 48 stars on it. Keeping with WWI legacy, this was the flag that the soldiers of WWI fought under, long before Alaska and Hawaii became part of the Union in 1959.
Check out the announcement video below that was posted to the official Army West Point Athletics Facebook page.
A group of six German shepherds gave a final salute August 28 in honor of a fellow canine who served three tours of duty as a military working dog for the US Marine Corps and died on July 27 at age 10 after a weeks’ long battle with bone cancer.
The German shepherds, which are part of the K-9 Salute Team, were trained to kneel and howl on command in honor of Cena, a black lab who was euthanized in July and whose remains were interred August 28 at the Michigan War Dog Memorial in Lyon Township.
The memorial site, which hosted the public service and private interment, has about 10 military dogs buried beside 2,150 pets interred at the historic pet cemetery, according to memorial president and director Phil Weitlauf.
DeYoung and Cena. Photo from American Humane via NewsEdge.
Cena, a bomb-sniffing dog, belonged to Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jeffrey DeYoung, 27, of Muskegon, who said he adopted the black lab in June 2014 after Cena underwent a year of rehabilitation therapy. DeYoung said that he and Cena served together on a seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan that began in October 2009.
Cena also served with Jon North, a Marine sergeant from Osage, Iowa, who was present at the ceremony, and one other soldier who was not able to be there.
DeYoung said in a eulogy at the memorial service that Cena endured various injuries on his tours of duty, and that he and Cena encountered three improvised explosive devices together. Cena was officially an IED detection dog with the Marine Corps. The dogs walk ahead of patrols and pick up the scent of the explosives in the area and sit down near the explosive before a bomb-disarming unit comes, Weitlauf said.
“In every aspect of Cena, he has shed blood, pain, sweat, and tears for this country,” DeYoung said.
North, 28, who served one year with Cena in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 didn’t speak at the service, but told the Free Press that Cena was known for being “a slow, old man” and that he was “just kind of a goofy old dog.”
“By the end of your time together, he’s more like a brother, more like a kid. It’s hard to let him go,” North said.
Together, DeYoung and North carried an urn containing Cena’s ashes in a funeral procession that included bagpipers and a military color guard.
Weitlauf said that three separate Jeep convoys — including one from Muskegon with DeYoung escorting Cena’s remains — traversed different parts of the state to make it to the service, linking up at different locations including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and New Hudson. He said that about 80 Jeeps participated in the convoys, and that about 600 people attended the funeral service — nearly double the 350 attendees the services normally get.
DeYoung, who is a professional public speaker, said that after adopting Cena in 2014, their job wasn’t yet over. They spent the next several years journeying across the country together to places such as President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and the US Congress, where DeYoung discussed the need to bring home all war dogs prior to retirement “so that what happened in Vietnam with the euthanasia will never happen again.”
At the end of that war, troops were ordered to leave their dogs in Vietnam out of fear of a logistical nightmare and concerns of disease being brought back, Weitlauf said. They had the option to give the dogs over to the South Vietnamese army or to euthanize them, he said. Over 4,000 were left behind, and only 204 made it back home, Weitlauf said.
Tom Strempka, 69, of Bloomfield Hills was deployed to Vietnam in 1971 at the age of 23, where he served a six-month tour of duty and suffered injuries. He said the funeral gave him closure.
Strempka said that war dogs in Vietnam once saved his platoon of 30 men from an ambush.
“I’m out here for every funeral because it’s long overdue for everyone to recognize the importance of dogs as being part of the unit and not a piece of equipment, the way the government treated them in Vietnam,” Strempka said. “And it’s a glorious day, and I guess that it gives me a little more peace of mind.”
For DeYoung, laying Cena to rest at what he described as the ” Arlington of dogs” also provided some closure.
“Cena’s journey in my life is done. Our work is not, so I will continue doing so in his honor,” DeYoung said to reporters before the ceremony.
Just days after President Donald Trump mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “nuclear button” and flaunted the size and efficacy of his own nuclear fleet, the two countries have made strides toward peace.
With little more than a month before the start of South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, North Korea has reopened communications with Seoul and expressed interest in mending relations.
In the same New Year’s Day address in which Kim touted his willingness to engage in nuclear war, he “earnestly” wished for South Korea’s games to succeed and said it was a “good opportunity to show unity of the people.”
The U.S. and South Korea have also announced they will pause their military exercises not just through the end of the games in late February but reportedly all the way through the Paralympics, set to end in mid-March.
As a result, the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea may have just scheduled an unprecedented 2 1/2 months of markedly lowered tensions.
North Korea hates the U.S. and South Korea’s military exercises, which regularly feature huge numbers of troops and advanced weapons systems. Lately, the drills and development of new weapons systems have increasingly focused on taking out Kim.
North Korea often intentionally times missile launches to coincide with the drills.
North Korea, China, and Russia all support the “freeze for freeze” path to negotiations, wherein the U.S. and South Korea suspend the military drills in exchange for North Korea halting missile and nuclear tests.
The U.S. has always rejected this strategy on the grounds that North Korea’s missile tests are illegal and the military drills are not. But the Winter Olympics have opened a window of opportunity for diplomacy.
But is it a trap?
North Korea has made overtures of peace to South Korea before. In fact, Andrea Berger, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out on Twitter that Pyongyang had a history of extending olive branches after periods of tension.
“2017 painted the extremely worrying security backdrop that everyone is desperate to move away from,” Berger wrote. “The DPRK will test each South Korean administration, pushing to see how far doors will open.”
“But, it is worth remembering that most January windows of opportunity for North-South progress get smashed fairly quickly,” Berger wrote — North Korea’s peace overtures normally occur in January.
Even as North Korea prepares for its highest-level talks with South Korea in years, reports have surfaced that it’s planning to test a missile or at least a rocket engine.
Additionally, a lull in activity may tempt South Korea to side with China, Russia, and ultimately Pyongyang, rejecting the U.S.’s calls for total denuclearization and holding out for talks until strict preconditions have been met.
But for now, the U.S. and South Korea are set to go months without provoking North Korea with military exercises. It will be up to North Korea, which has backed out of peace talks before, to demonstrate its commitment to de-escalation.
To develop Sailors with character and professional competence, who possess integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness, Recruit Training Command (RTC), the Navy’s only boot camp, administers a final exam that is designed to evaluate the proficiency of critical warfighting skills.
The final exam is called “Battle Stations-21.” It is a graded evolution held on board USS Trayer, a 210-ft replica of an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile Destroyer, in which recruits must earn the right to be called a “Sailor” and graduate basic training. They spend the night loading stores, getting underway, handling mooring lines, standing watches, responding to incoming attacks, manning general quarters stations, and combating shipboard fires and floods. It is as close to being underway as a recruit can get before reaching their first ship.
Facing sensory overload from compartments full of smoke, blaring alarms, periods of low visibility as well as disorienting flashes, recruits are required to overcome the stress, self-organize and tackle each scenario with little-to-no intervention from instructors. Their Battle Stations-21 grade is comprised of 75% individual proficiency and 25% team proficiency. Failure in either category, or an overall score below 80%, results in training remediation which impacts recruit graduation dates.
Part of the new hands-on learning curriculum, designed by RTC’s senior enlisted instructors to develop tough, more qualified Sailors through realistic training, the Battle Stations-21 grading requirements measure warfighting proficiency during the Sailor development process.
“Battle Stations-21 is the standard for testing the effectiveness of recruit training,” said Chief Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical) Kevin Barrientos, one of the RTC instructors responsible for running USS Trayer. “Scenarios include ship replenishment, sea and anchor detail, firefighting, damage control, crew casualties and various deck, bridge, engineering and navigation watch stations.”
To prepare for Battle Stations-21, recruits conduct hands-on training that is focused on the critical warfighting skills of watch standing, seamanship, force protection, firefighting and damage control. In the classroom, applied labs and practical trainers, recruits conduct more than 30 hours of seamanship training and more than 40 hours of firefighting and damage control training before reaching their final exam.
Recruits also maintain an around-the-clock watch rotation, simulating various watch stations as they are manned in the Fleet. They also have the opportunity to earn their M9 Service Pistol qualification during small-arms familiarization training.
“Our hands-on learning curriculum enforces repetitive and deliberate practice of each skill,” Barrientos said. “This type of training motivates recruits to rise to the challenge at Battle Stations-21, and prepares them for service in the Fleet.”
Recruits fight all night long to keep USS Trayer operational and battle ready. If they embrace their training, they will pass their final exam, earn their Navy ball cap, and advance to graduation. Trayer is then reset for the next division of recruits who hope to become the Navy’s newest Sailors.
Recruit Training Command is approximately eight weeks long and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. About 40,000 recruits graduate annually from RTC and begin their Navy careers.
Are you struggling to meet Army weight standards or need to improve your run time to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test or Army Combat Fitness Test? Maybe you just signed up for the Army Ten-Miler and would like to improve your performance.
Did you know there is a world-class team of experts at an Army Wellness Center near you with access to cutting-edge technology just waiting to help? No need to hire a personal trainer, your AWC offers free services and programs to help you meet your fitness goals.
Last year, AWCs served 60,000 clients and achieved a 97 percent client satisfaction rating, according to the Army Public Health Center’s 2018 Health of the Force report. Program evaluations of AWC effectiveness have shown that individuals who participate in at least one follow-up AWC assessment experience improvements in their cardiorespiratory fitness, body fat percentage, body mass index, blood pressure and perceived stress.
Making improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and body mass index are particularly important because increased levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and decreased levels of body mass index are associated with decreased musculoskeletal injury risk.
Megan Amadeo, Army Wellness Center Project Officer, Army Public Health Center, assists U.S. Army Capt. Zachary Schroeder, Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, Army Public Health Center, with putting on the new K5 metabolic testing unit May 9, 2019, as part of his training to compete in the Army Ten Miler in October 2019.
(Photo by Graham Snodgrass)
“The types of assessments provided at an AWC are world class,” said Todd Hoover, division chief for Army Wellness Center Operations, Army Public Health Center. “If a client is interested in losing weight, AWCs provide an assessment called indirect calorimetry or simply metabolic testing. The test involves a client breathing into a mask for 15 minutes. After the test we can measure, with an extremely high accuracy, the total number of calories an individual needs to lose, gain or maintain weight. The information provided from this test is often the difference between someone reaching their goals or not.”
There are currently 35 AWCs located at Army installations around the globe offering programs and services to soldiers, family members, retirees and Department of Army civilians, said Hoover. AWCs are known for being innovative in the use of testing technology for health, wellness and physical performance.
Hoover said the best client for an AWC is a soldier who is not meeting APFT/ACFT performance standards. Those with low or high body mass index plus poor run times are the highest risk populations. These individuals are the majority at risk for musculoskeletal injury, which account for more than 69 percent of all cause injuries in the Army.
One of the AWC’s newest pieces of gear is a portable metabolic analyzer called the Cosmed K5. This system measures how well muscles use oxygen during any type of strenuous activity. From this measurement, AWC experts can determine how efficient the body is at using oxygen to produce energy and identify the exact threshold or intensity level an individual should train at to improve performance.
“Essentially the devices provide the most accurate measurement of aerobic performance,” said Hoover. “From the testing, we can precisely advise a soldier or family member the exact training intensity for them. What this means is there is no guessing. This is an exact physiological representation of the individual’s needs for a particular activity. It doesn’t get better than this.”
U.S. Army Capt. Zachary Schroeder, Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, Army Public Health Center, runs with the new K5 metabolic testing unit May 9, 2019, as part of his training to compete in the Army Ten-Miler in October 2019.
(Photo by Graham Snodgrass)
AWCs are built on a foundation of scientific evidence, best practice recommendations and standards by leading health organizations to include the American College of Sports Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, said Hoover. As a result, clients of AWCs receive highly individualized health and wellness services to improve overall health-related factors as well as enhanced performance through effective coaching strategies.
An article summarizing the effectiveness of the AWC program was recently submitted to the American Journal of Health Promotion, which recognized their success by selecting the article as a 2018 Editor’s Pick.
“The staff academic and credentialing requirements surpass industry standards,” said Hoover. “This means that each AWC health educator has completed advanced education plus achieved national board certification in related fields for delivering health promotion programs.”
AWC health educators also undergo more than 320 hours of intensive core competency training prior to seeing their first client, said Hoover. Basic health coaching requires an additional 80 hours of training.
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through studies, surveys and technical consultations.
On Sunday, North Korea launched a missile into the Sea of Japan for the first time since US President Donald Trump took office.
South Korean officials told Reuters that the missile, a land-based adaptation of the submarine-launched KN-11, doesn’t have the range to strike the US but has another trait that’s just as troubling, if not more: solid fuel.
North Korean missiles usually rely on liquid fuel and have to be gassed up similar to how you’d fill up a car.
North Korea, like many nuclear powers, mounts its nuclear-capable missiles on trucks.
Road-mobile missile launchers can hide easier, launch from almost anywhere, and take an enemy by surprise — but liquid fuel complicates all that.
To launch a liquid-fueled missile, a giant convoy of military trucks must drive out to a location, fuel up the rocket with the multiple types of fuel for the different stages of launch, and then fire away. This requires dozens of trucks and associated military personnel. Such a large-scale deployment is much harder to conceal from a vigilant foe.
“Liquid-fueled missiles are more vulnerable to tracking and preemptive strikes. Solid-fueled ballistic missiles are not fueled on site and therefore pose more of a threat, because solid-fueled ballistic missiles require less support and can be deployed more quickly,” Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy and a North Korea expert at the Arms Control Association, told Business Insider.
With a missile like the one tested on Sunday, North Korea could simply park a truck and let it fly.
That’s exactly what the video of its latest launch shows:
“Another striking feature of the test was the transport erector launcher that was used to launch the missile. Images indicate that it ran on treads rather than wheels,” Davenport said. “This allows North Korea to move its missiles through more difficult terrains.”
To counter such a sneaky launcher, an adversary would have to spend extensively on surveillance and recon technology.
So while North Korea remains without an ICBM to directly threaten the US mainland, its successful launch of a solid-fueled missile means it has developed a destabilizing technology that could strike US military bases, South Korea, or Japan with a moment’s notice.
For years, conservatives have assailed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a dysfunctional bureaucracy. They said private enterprise would mean better, easier-to-access health care for veterans. President Donald Trump embraced that position, enthusiastically moving to expand the private sector’s role.
Here’s what has actually happened in the four years since the government began sending more veterans to private care: longer waits for appointments and, a new analysis of VA claims data by ProPublica and PolitiFact shows, higher costs for taxpayers.
Since 2014, 1.9 million former service members have received private medical care through a program called Veterans Choice. It was supposed to give veterans a way around long wait times in the VA. But their average waits using the Choice Program were still longer than allowed by law, according to examinations by the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. The watchdogs also found widespread blunders, such as booking a veteran in Idaho with a doctor in New York and telling a Florida veteran to see a specialist in California. Once, the VA referred a veteran to the Choice Program to see a urologist, but instead he got an appointment with a neurologist.
The winners have been two private companies hired to run the program, which began under the Obama administration and is poised to grow significantly under Trump. ProPublica and PolitiFact obtained VA data showing how much the agency has paid in medical claims and administrative fees for the Choice program. Since 2014, the two companies have been paid nearly billion for overhead, including profit. That’s about 24 percent of the companies’ total program expenses — a rate that would exceed the federal cap that governs how much most insurance plans can spend on administration in the private sector.
According to the agency’s inspector general, the VA was paying the contractors at least 5 every time it authorized private care for a veteran. The fee was so high because the VA hurriedly launched the Choice Program as a short-term response to a crisis. Four years later, the fee never subsided — it went up to as much as 8 per referral.
“This is what happens when people try and privatize the VA,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans committee, said in a statement responding to these findings. “The VA has an obligation to taxpayers to spend its limited resources on caring for veterans, not paying excessive fees to a government contractor. When VA does need the help of a middleman, it needs to do a better job of holding contractors accountable for missing the mark.”
The Affordable Care Act prohibits large group insurance plans from spending more than 15 percent of their revenue on administration, including marketing and profit. The private sector standard is 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Andrew Naugle, who advises health insurers on administrative operations as a consultant at Milliman, one of the world’s largest actuarial firms. Overhead is even lower in the Defense Department’s Tricare health benefits program: only 8 percent in 2017.
Even excluding the costs of setting up the new program, the Choice contractors’ overhead still amounts to 21 percent of revenue.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Rick Weidman, the policy director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in response to the figures. “There are people constantly banging on the VA, but this was the private sector that made a total muck of it.”
A spokesman for the VA, Curt Cashour, declined to provide an interview with key officials and declined to answer a detailed list of written questions.
One of the contractors, Health Net, stopped working on the program in September 2018. Health Net didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The other contractor, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, said it has worked closely with the VA to improve the program and has made major investments of its own. “We believe supporting VA in ensuring the delivery of quality care to our nation’s veterans is a moral responsibility, even while others have avoided making these investments or have withdrawn from the market,” the company said in a statement.
TriWest did not dispute ProPublica and PolitiFact’s estimated overhead rate, which used total costs, but suggested an alternate calculation, using an average cost, that yielded a rate of 13 percent to 15 percent. The company defended the 5-plus fee by saying it covers “highly manual” services such as scheduling appointments and coordinating medical files. Such functions are not typically part of the contracts for other programs, such as the military’s Tricare. But Tricare’s contractors perform other duties, such as adjudicating claims and monitoring quality, that Health Net and TriWest do not. In a recent study comparing the programs, researchers from the Rand Corporation concluded that the role of the Choice Program’s contractors is “much narrower than in the private sector or in Tricare.”
Before the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net performed essentially the same functions for about a sixth of the price, according to the VA inspector general. TriWest declined to break down how much of the fee goes to each service it provides.
Because of what the GAO called the contractors’ “inadequate” performance, the VA increasingly took over doing the Choice Program’s referrals and claims itself.
In many cases, the contractors’ 5-plus processing fee for every referral was bigger than the doctor’s bill for services rendered, the analysis of agency data showed. In the three months ending Jan. 31, 2018, the Choice Program made 49,144 referrals for primary care totaling .9 million in medical costs, for an average cost per referral of 1.16. A few other types of care also cost less on average than the handling fee: chiropractic care (6.32 per referral) and optometry (9.25). There were certainly other instances where the medical services cost much more than the handling fee: TriWest said its average cost per referral was about ,100 in the past six months.
Beyond what the contractors were entitled to, audits by the VA inspector general found that they overcharged the government by 0 million from November 2014 to March 2017. Both companies are now under federal investigation arising from these overpayments. Health Net’s parent company, Centene, disclosed a Justice Department civil investigation into “excessive, duplicative or otherwise improper claims.” A federal grand jury in Arizona is investigating TriWest for “wire fraud and misused government funds,” according to a court decision on a subpoena connected to the case. Both companies said they are cooperating with the inquiries.
Despite the criminal investigation into TriWest’s management of the Choice Program, the Trump administration recently expanded the company’s contract without competitive bidding. Now, TriWest stands to collect even more fees as the administration prepares to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to send more veterans to private doctors.
(US Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Senate veterans committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he expects VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to discuss the agency’s plans for the future of private care when he testifies at a hearing on Dec. 19, 2018. A spokeswoman for the outgoing chairman of the House veterans committee, Phil Roe, R-Tenn., didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The last thing we need is to have funding for VA’s core mission get wasted,” Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who will become the House panel’s chairman in January 2019, said in a statement. “I will make sure Congress conducts comprehensive oversight to ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Many of the Choice Program’s defects trace back to its hasty launch.
In 2014, the Republican chairman of the House veterans committee alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. The inspector general eventually concluded that no deaths were attributable to the delays. But it was true that officials at the Phoenix VA were covering up long wait times, and critics seized on this scandal to demand that veterans get access to private medical care.
One of the loudest voices demanding changes was John McCain’s. “Make no mistake: This is an emergency,” the Arizona senator, who died in August 2018, said at the time. McCain struck a compromise with Democrats to open up private care for veterans who lived at least 40 miles from a VA facility or would have to wait at least 30 days to get an appointment.
In the heat of the scandal, Congress gave the VA only 90 days to launch Choice. The VA reached out to 57 companies about administering the new program, but the companies said they couldn’t get the program off the ground in just three months, according to contracting records. So the VA tacked the Choice Program onto existing contracts with Health Net and TriWest to run a much smaller program for buying private care. “There is simply insufficient time to solicit, evaluate, negotiate and award competitive contracts and then allow for some form of ramp-up time for a new contractor,” the VA said in a formal justification for bypassing competitive bidding.
But that was a shaky foundation on which to build a much larger program, since those earlier contracts were themselves flawed. In a 2016 report, the VA inspector general said officials hadn’t followed the rules “to ensure services acquired are based on need and at fair and reasonable prices.” The report criticized the VA for awarding higher rates than one of the vendors proposed.
The new contract with the VA was a lifeline for TriWest. Its president and CEO, David J. McIntyre Jr., was a senior aide to McCain in the mid-1990s before starting the company, based in Phoenix, to handle health benefits for the military’s Tricare program. In 2013, TriWest lost its Tricare contract and was on the verge of shutting down. Thanks to the VA contract, TriWest went from laying off more than a thousand employees to hiring hundreds.
Senator John McCain.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
McIntyre’s annual compensation, according to federal contracting disclosures, is .36 million. He declined to be interviewed. In a statement, TriWest noted that the original contract, for the much smaller private care program, had been competitively awarded.
The VA paid TriWest and Health Net 0 million upfront to set up the new Choice program, according to the inspector general’s audit. But that was dwarfed by the fees that the contractors would collect. Previously, the VA paid the companies between and 3 for every referral, according to the inspector general. But for the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net raised their fee to between 5 and 0 to do essentially the same work on a larger scale, the inspector general said.
The price hike was a direct result of the time pressure, according to Greg Giddens, a former VA contracting executive who dealt with the Choice Program. “If we had two years to stand up the program, we would have been at a different price structure,” he said.
Even though the whole point of the Choice Program was to avoid 30-day waits in the VA, a convoluted process made it hard for veterans to see private doctors any faster. Getting care through the Choice Program took longer than 30 days 41 percent of the time, according to the inspector general’s estimate. The GAO found that in 2016 using the Choice Program could take as long as 70 days, with an average of 50 days.
Sometimes the contractors failed to make appointments at all. Over a three-month period in 2018, Health Net sent back between 9 percent and 13 percent of its referrals, according to agency data. TriWest failed to make appointments on 5 percent to 8 percent of referrals, the data shows.
Many veterans had frustrating experiences with the contractors.
Richard Camacho in Los Angeles said he got a call from TriWest to make an appointment for a sleep test, but he then received a letter from TriWest with different dates. He had to call the doctor to confirm when he was supposed to show up. When he got there, the doctor had received no information about what the appointment was for, Camacho said.
John Moen, a Vietnam veteran in Plano, Texas, tried to use the Choice Program for physical therapy in 2018 rather than travel to Dallas, where the VA had a six-week wait. But it took 10 weeks for him to get an appointment with a private provider.
“The Choice Program for me has completely failed to meet my needs,” Moen said.
Curtis Thompson, of Kirkland, Washington, said he’s been told the Choice Program had a 30-day wait just to process referrals, never mind to book an appointment. “Bottom line: Wait for the nearly 60 days to see the rheumatologist at the VA rather than opt for an unknown delay through Veterans Choice,” he said.
(Flickr photo by Rob Bixby)
After Thompson used the Choice Program in 2018 for a sinus surgery that the VA couldn’t perform within 30 days, the private provider came after him to collect payment, according to documentation he provided.
Thousands of veterans have had to contend with bill collectors and credit bureaus because the contractors failed to pay providers on time, according to the inspector general. Doctors have been frustrated with the Choice Program, too. The inspector general found that 15 providers in North Carolina stopped accepting patients from the VA because Health Net wasn’t paying them on time.
The VA shares the blame, since it fell behind in paying the contractors, the inspector general said. TriWest claimed the VA at one point owed the company 0 million. According to the inspector general, the VA’s pile of unpaid claims peaked at almost 180,000 in 2016 and was virtually eliminated by the end of the year.
The VA tried to tackle the backlog of unpaid doctors, but it had a problem: The agency didn’t know who was performing the services arranged by the contractors. That’s because Health Net and TriWest controlled the provider networks, and the medical claims they submit to the VA do not include any provider information.
The contractors’ role as middlemen created the opportunity for payment errors, according to the inspector general’s audit. The inspector general found 77,700 cases where the contractors billed the VA for more than they paid providers and pocketed the difference, totaling about million. The inspector general also identified .9 million in duplicate payments and .5 million in other errors.
TriWest said it has worked with the VA to correct the payment errors and set aside money to pay back. The company said it’s waiting for the VA to provide a way to refund the confirmed overpayments. “We remain ready to complete the necessary reconciliations as soon as that process is formally approved,” TriWest said.
The grand jury proceedings involving TriWest are secret, but the investigation became public because prosecutors sought to obtain the identities of anonymous commenters on the jobs website Glassdoor.com who accused TriWest of “mak[ing] money unethically off of veterans/VA.” Glassdoor fought the subpoena but lost, in November 2017. The court’s opinion doesn’t name TriWest, but it describes the subject of the investigation as “a government contractor that administers veterans’ healthcare programs” and quotes the Glassdoor reviews about TriWest. The federal prosecutor’s office in Arizona declined to comment.
“TriWest has cooperated with many government inquiries regarding VA’s community care programs and will continue to do so,” the company said in its statement. “TriWest must respect the government’s right to keep those inquiries confidential until such time as the government decides to conclude the inquiry or take any actions or adjust VA programs as deemed appropriate.”
The VA tried to make the Choice Program run more smoothly and efficiently. Because the contractors were failing to find participating doctors to treat veterans, the VA in mid-2015 launched a full-court press to sign up private providers directly, according to the inspector general. In some states, the VA also took over scheduling from the contractors.
“We were making adjustments on the fly trying to get it to work,” said David Shulkin, who led the VA’s health division starting in 2015. “There needed to be a more holistic solution.”
Officials decided in 2016 to design new contracts that would change the fee structure and reabsorb some of the services that the VA had outsourced to Health Net and TriWest. The department secretary at the time, Bob McDonald, concluded the VA needed to handle its own customer service, since the agency’s reputation was suffering from TriWest’s and Health Net’s mistakes. Reclaiming those functions would have the side effect of reducing overhead.
“Tell me a great customer service company in the world that outsources its customer service,” McDonald, who previously ran Procter Gamble, said in an interview. “I wanted to have the administrative functions within our medical centers so we took control of the care of the veterans. That would have brought that fee down or eliminated it entirely.”
The new contracts, called the Community Care Network, also aimed to reduce overhead by paying the contractors based on the number of veterans they served per month, rather than a flat fee for every referral. To prevent payment errors like the ones the inspector general found, the new contracts sought to increase information-sharing between the VA and the contractors. The VA opened bidding for the new Community Care Network contracts in December 2016.
But until those new contracts were in place, the VA was still stuck paying Health Net and TriWest at least 5 for every referral. So VA officials came up with a workaround: they could cut out the middleman and refer veterans to private providers directly. Claims going through the contractors declined by 47 percent from May to December in 2017.
TriWest’s CEO, McIntyre, objected to this workaround and blamed the VA for hurting his bottom line.
In a Feb. 26, 2018, email with the subject line “Heads Up… Likely Massive and Regrettable Train Wreck Coming!” McIntyre warned Shulkin, then the department secretary, that “long unresolved matters with VA and current behavior patterns will result in a projected million loss in 2019. This is on top of the losses that we have amassed over the last couple years.”
Officials were puzzled that, despite all the VA was paying TriWest, McIntyre was claiming he couldn’t make ends meet, according to agency emails provided to ProPublica and PolitiFact. McIntyre explained that he wanted the VA to waive penalties for claims that lacked adequate documentation and to pay TriWest an administrative fee on canceled referrals and no-show appointments, even though the VA read the contract to require a fee only on completed claims. In a March 2018 letter to key lawmakers, McIntyre said the VA’s practice of bypassing the contractors and referring patients directly to providers “has resulted in a significant drop in the volume of work and is causing the company irreparable financial harm.”
McIntyre claimed the VA owed TriWest million and warned of a “negative impact on VA and veterans that will follow” if the agency didn’t pay. Any disruptions at TriWest, he said, would rebound onto the VA, “given how much we are relied on by VA at the moment and the very public nature of this work.”
But when the VA asked to see TriWest’s financial records to substantiate McIntyre’s claims, the numbers didn’t add up, according to agency emails.
McIntyre’s distress escalated in March 2018, as the Choice Program was running out of money and lawmakers were locked in tense negotiations over its future. McIntyre began sending daily emails to the VA officials in charge of the Choice Program seeking updates and warning of impending disaster. “I don’t think the storm could get more difficult or challenging,” he wrote in one of the messages. “However, I know that I am not alone nor that the impact will be confined to us.”
McIntyre lobbied for a bill to permanently replace Choice with a new program consolidating all of the VA’s methods of buying private care. TriWest even offered to pay veterans organizations to run ads supporting the legislation, according to emails discussing the proposal. Congress overwhelmingly passed the law (named after McCain) in May 2018.
“In the campaign, I also promised that we would fight for Veterans Choice,” Trump said at the signing ceremony in June 2018. “And before I knew that much about it, it just seemed to be common sense. It seemed like if they’re waiting on line for nine days and they can’t see a doctor, why aren’t they going outside to see a doctor and take care of themselves, and we pay the bill? It’s less expensive for us, it works out much better, and it’s immediate care.”
The new permanent program for buying private care will take effect in June 2019. The VA’s new and improved Community Care Network contracts were supposed to be in place by then. But the agency repeatedly missed deadlines for these new contracts and has yet to award them.
The VA has said it’s aiming to pick the contractors for the new program in January and February 2019. Yet even if the VA meets this latest deadline, the contracts include a one-year ramp-up period, so they won’t be ready to start in June 2019.
That means TriWest will by default become the sole contractor for the new program. The VA declined to renew Health Net’s contract when it expired in September 2018. The VA was planning to deal directly with private providers in the regions that Health Net had covered. But the VA changed course and announced that TriWest would take over Health Net’s half of the country. The agency said TriWest would be the sole contractor for the entire Choice Program until it awards the Community Care Network contracts.
“There’s still not a clear timeline moving forward,” said Giddens, the former VA contracting executive. “They need to move forward with the next program. The longer they stay with the current one, and now that it’s down to TriWest, that’s not the best model.”
Meanwhile, TriWest will continue receiving a fee for every referral. And the number of referrals is poised to grow as the administration plans to shift more veterans to the private sector.
This story was produced in collaboration with PolitiFact.
This article originally appeared on ProPublica. Follow @ProPublica on Twitter.
Shoichi Yokoi was 26 when he was drafted into the Japanese Army in 1941.
At the time, soldiers were taught that surrender was the worst possible fate for a soldier — so when US forces invaded Japanese-occupied Guam in 1944, Yokoi fled into the jungle.
He dug a cave near a waterfall, covered it with bamboo and reeds, and survived by eating small animals. He had no idea, when he was discovered on Jan. 24, 1972, by two hunters near a river, that the war had ended decades ago.
He attacked the hunters, who were able to overpower the weakened soldier and escorted him to authorities, where he revealed his bizarre story.
Yokoi was treated at a hospital in Guam before heading home to Japan, which he had not seen since 1941.
Yokoi was sent to Guam after being drafted into the Japanese Army in 1941.
During the US invasion he and a number of other soldiers made their way into the jungle to avoid being taken as prisoners of war.
This newspaper photograph was described as Yokoi’s first haircut in 28 years.
Japanese government officials flew to the island to help repatriate the soldier, who had not seen his homeland for nearly 30 years.
During his 27 years in isolation, he survived by eating frogs, rats, and eels as well as fruits and nuts, according to his obituary in The New York Times.
He made his own shelter, using bamboo and reeds to cover a cave he dug himself. In his memoirs, he said he buried at least two of his comrades eight years before he was discovered.
In this book, Yokoi’s autobiography is supplemented by a biographical account of his later life.
Talofofo Falls Resort Park, where Shoichi Yokoi dug a cave and hid for nearly 28 years after the US invasion of Guam during World War II.
Although he was repatriated to Japan almost immediately, he reportedly flew back to Guam several times throughout the remainder of his life, including for his honeymoon.
According to his obituary, Yokoi had a hard time readjusting to life in Japan.
The entrance to Yokoi’s cave is in Talofofo Falls Resort Park in Guam.
Yokoi covered his cave with bamboo and reeds.
The soldier was a tailor before the war, skills that helped him make his shelter and clothing, according to Stars Stripes.
This diagram sketches the cave where Yokoi hid for nearly 28 years.
The cave has reportedly collapsed, but a diagram at the site shows an idea of what it looked like.
Soldiers and equipment from the US Army’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, from the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood in Texas, are arriving in Europe in late May 2018, for a nine-month rotation in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Operation Atlantic Resolve started in April 2014, in response to Russian interference in Ukraine, and is meant to emphasize US commitment to European defense through “continuous, enhanced multinational training and security cooperation.”
The Ironhorse Brigade’s arrival is the third back-to-back rotation the Army has pursued in order to have an armored brigade in Europe, where the US has been looking to bolster its armored presence.
But the route the brigade is taking to its base points to another capability the US and its NATO partners are trying to boost: The ability to move around Europe on the ground.
(US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jacob A. McDonald)
The unit will primarily be based in Germany and mostly operate in eastern Europe, but the first of three ships carrying its tanks, trucks, and mobile artillery arrived in May 2018, in Antwerp, a Belgian port that hasn’t seen a major US military movement of this kind in the past 10 or 20 years, according to an Army release.
Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro, commander of 21st Theater Sustainment Command, which supports US military operations in Europe and Africa, said the vehicles will move across Europe via convoy, line-haul, river barge, and train. The Army has issued notices about planned movements by road and rail in western and eastern Germany.
“Sometimes what is old is new again, and that is coming in here,” Shapiro said. “Antwerp and Rotterdam were major ports when we were operating during the Cold War … We are coming back to Antwerp in a big way.”
The brigade will send about 2,500 pieces of equipment through Antwerp, including 87 M1 Abrams tanks, 138 armored personnel carriers, 18 Paladin self-propelled howitzers, and more than a thousand other vehicles.
(US Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Case)
“It’s a totally different type of deployment,” said brigade commander Col. Wilson Rutherford IV. “We could have gone into the port of Gdansk, [in Poland], which is much closer, but we wanted to exercise this port, exercise the barge movement, the line haul, and the convoys.”
“This is very different from the 2/1 [ABCT] and 3/4 [ABCT] deployments, but the goal is to learn as much as we can,” he added, referring to previous rotations by the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team from the 4th Infantry Division — the latter of which is known as the Iron Brigade.
Reversing post-Cold War atrophy
The US military’s presence in Europe has steadily declined since the end of the Cold War. The US Army once had 300,000 soldiers stationed there, but that force dwindled to roughly 30,000. In April 2013, the US’s last 22 Abrams tanks in Europe returned to the US, ending the Army’s 69-year history of stationing main battle tanks there.
That absence was short-lived. In January 2014, 29 Abrams tanks arrived in Germany, joining other armored vehicles there for what were to be short stints in small formations. That approach changed in early 2017, when the Iron Brigade arrived with tanks and armored vehicles for the first nine-month, back-to-back rotation.
A tangle of customs rules and local regulations have hamstrung movements across borders. Infrastructure issues — like bridges or roads not built to carry heavy armored vehicles — have also hindered operations, as have shortages of transports.
These problems led NATO to conclude in an internal report in late 2017, that its ability to rapidly deploy around Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”
That report recommended setting up two new commands — one to oversee logistics operations in Europe, particularly in central and eastern Europe, and another to manage the shipment of personnel and supplies across the Atlantic.
In March 2018, NATO said the new logistics command would be based in the city of Ulm in southern Germany. (The US has volunteered to host the new Atlantic command in Norfolk, Virginia.) That same month, the European Union said it was working to address the conflicting regulations and infrastructure issues hindering military operations.
“By facilitating military mobility within the EU, we can be more effective in preventing crises, more efficient in deploying our missions, and quicker in reacting when challenges arise,” EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the time.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.