Keeping an eye on Afghanistan and military personnel’s fitness

March 21, 2011

In a busy news week, with Japanese radiation, Libyan fighting and Gulf States’ protests dominating the headlines, new factual information delivered during hearings on Capitol Hill often gets lost in the mix.

Here is a sampling from Senate and House hearings on elements of the Defense Department’s fiscal 2012 budget:

Eye on Afghanistan: Gen. David Petraeus, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that persistent surveillance of Afghanistan has sharply increased and will continue growing. “We have increased the number of various types of persistent surveillance systems — essentially blimps and towers with optics — from 114 this past August to 184 at the present, with plans for continued increases throughout this year.”

The prime system is the Aerostat, a blimp-like vehicle that is held 1,000 feet in the air by a tether, which also supplies electric power to its cameras and sensors. They are not highly pressurized so bullets won’t immediately shoot them down. They, along with systems based on towers, provide day and night monitoring of a wide area over towns and military bases.

Battling Afghan corruption: Petraeus defended President Hamid Karzai on the subject of Afghan corruption. He said Karzai’s concern with private security contractors was based on ownership “in some cases of former warlords or members of what he — and we — have agreed to call criminal patronage networks. . . . Again, these are criminals. They’re breaking the law. They have political protection in some respects. And they’re not just acting as individuals; they are part of networks. ”

Petraeus told the story of the firing in December of former Afghan surgeon general Ahmad Zia Yaftali and three officials from the country’s top medical facility, Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul. A U.S.-Afghan investigation discovered about $43-million worth of American-supplied drugs for military hospitals were missing, and expensive diagnostic equipment was found in private medical offices.

“When he heard the evidence on his surgeon general, for example, he fired him on the spot,” Petraeus told the senators about Karzai.

Recruiting facts: The Air Force, which has its newly established U.S. Cyber Command, is looking to recruit professionals in this discipline “who do this work on a daily basis but that are willing to serve and share their expertise with the service,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told Congress. One approach: building Air Force Reserve units in Silicon Valley in California and the Northwest, where Microsoft and other Web giants are located.

Military construction excess: A $50-million Navy fitness center and two working dog facilities — at $4.9 million and $3.5 million each — drew the attention of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services military construction subcommittee. “Those are expensive working dog facilities,” she volunteered, but never pursued them.

“I understand that fitness is a requirement of the job, and we will always need fitness centers for our military,” she said, “but at a time when our nation is facing fiscal cuts, I have trouble seeing how we can justify spending $50 million on a single fitness center and I want to examine that more fully.”

She said she thought “this must be in a very, very difficult part of the world. This must be a fitness center someplace where there is no other access to easy and affordable and accessible PT [physical training] activities.” But her interest increased when she found it was to be built at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego and is to include a $7.5 million swimming pool, a $4 million recreation center for single sailors and a close to $20 million gym facility.

“I’m anxious to hear what we’re replacing and certainly I want our men and women to have the best,” McCaskill said. “But this is the most beautiful place in the world and certainly the outdoors lends itself for exercise almost every day there.”

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment, diplomatically agreed that San Diego was most beautiful and the area lends itself to being outdoors. “But,” she added, “the reason that this facility is at the price that it is, is that it will have something like 80,000 patrons.” She explained San Diego is a major hub for the Navy and Marines, and the expectation is the $50 million building “will be the central facility for that entire area.”

Coronado Naval Base lists on its Web site 12 Navy fitness centers and gyms located throughout the San Diego region, including one, the Admiral J.G. Prout Field House, that has strength and cardiovacular machines, a trained staff and “includes a 50 meter outdoor pool, jacuzzi, an indoor basketball court and locker rooms complete with sauna.”

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