The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 week ago

Guest: Tuberville backs military justice reform bill — Will it pass?

(Tommy Tuberville/Facebook, @USMarineCorps /Twitter, YHN)

In late April, U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) announced he would cosponsor the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. The bill would reform how sexual assault crimes are prosecuted within the military. At a press conference at Dannelly Field in Montgomery on June 3, Tuberville said the bill would make positive changes to how the military prosecutes sexual assault cases but also said the bill maintained the authority of commanders to maintain law and order.

As he has been well known to do, Tuberville related the changes to football, saying it paralleled the needs of a head coach to discipline players. Football references aside, the bill is a historic opportunity for Congress to assert its authority over rampant sexual assault cases in the military. While a popular measure, it faces grounded opposition from key Senate leaders that could stall its momentum in the red zone (OK, that was the last one).

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As background, the effort to reform the military justice system began long before Tuberville took office this year. For eight years, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has fought to remove prosecutorial decisions on sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and place those decisions with civilian attorneys. However, many of her colleagues, military commanders and Department of Defense leaders have opposed such moves as they believe doing so would weaken commanders’ ability to maintain good order and discipline among their forces.
The debate came to a head this year when U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), who had fiercely opposed the legislation, reached a compromise with Gillibrand to keep major prosecutorial decisions within the military but outside the immediate chain of command. Ernst is the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate and is a survivor of sexual assault. She is seen as highly influential on military issues in Congress, and her support for the bill has propelled it to a filibuster-proof 64 Senate cosponsors.

Under the new bill, court martial decisions involving major crimes within the military — including sexual assault, manslaughter, murder and other serious offenses — would be made by independent professional military prosecutors. Misdemeanor-level decisions would still be decided by the commanding officer.

Ernst and other supporters of the bill, including Tuberville, say that the legislation balances good order and discipline concerns with necessary action to curb the devastating level of sexual assault cases in the military. A 2020 Department of Defense study found that around 20,000 sexual assaults occur in the military each year.

Following the announcement of the bipartisan compromise, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced he no longer opposed reforms to the military justice system. Milley is the most senior U.S. military commander and previously opposed legislation that would have moved sexual assault prosecutorial decisions out of the armed forces entirely.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, an Alabama native, is yet to announce his position on the bill. However, a panel he commissioned to study the issue recently endorsed the legislation. Austin is expected to announce his final position on the issue in the coming days or weeks.

Despite the momentum and 64 cosponsors, the bill still faces major hurdles to become law. U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, believes the bill should be vetted by his committee prior to receiving a vote on the floor. Reed is not opposed to removing sexual assault cases from the immediate chain of command, but he has questioned removing other serious crimes, such as murder, from commanders’ purview.

In the Senate, expedited approval of legislation requires unanimous consent of the entire legislative body. To date, Reed and others have objected to Gillibrand’s efforts to obtain the expedition. And, with Washington bitterly divided and many critical funding and authorization bills taking up committee business and floor time, the military justice reform bill faces an uncertain future.

One possible way forward is for Gillibrand, Ernst, Tuberville and other members, all of whom serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to push for the legislation to be considered as part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, known as NDAA. The NDAA is considered a must-pass measure and serves as the vehicle for most major Congressionally mandated military policy measures. It authorizes, but does not appropriate, funding for the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons programs of the Department of Energy. The NDAA has been approved by Congress and signed into law for 60 consecutive years.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee can amend and strike measures for the NDAA during a closed-door process known as “mark-up.” While the NDAA process is delayed due to the late rollout of President Biden’s proposed budget, mark-up is expected to occur in the fall with floor consideration coming closer to the end of the year.

The bill could also be added as a policy rider to any of the approaching appropriations or infrastructure packages that will likely consume Congress in the coming months. However, doing so would likely require the Senate to approve an amendment on the floor, which Reed and others would attempt to disqualify as out of the jurisdiction of non-defense legislation.

Regardless of the legislative vehicle, the bill’s eventual consideration will be a defining moment in a nearly 10-year effort to reform the military justice system. If passed and signed into law, it will mark the culmination of a truly bipartisan compromise by Ernst and Gillibrand, enabled by those newer to the debate such Tuberville and many others. If it fails, proponents and detractors can be expected to pick up the fight again next year, and the years to follow, given the momentous problem at stake.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He currently works in business development at software company in Washington, D.C., focusing on the company’s intelligence community and defense work. He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

4 weeks ago

Guest: Putting Israel-Gaza violence in context and perspective

(Zachi Evenor/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last two weeks, violence between Israel and Palestinian terror factions in Gaza spiked following disturbances in the Old City of Jerusalem. With congruent Israeli and Islamic holidays underway, clashes and riots broke out culminating with Israeli security services conducting a raid at al Aqsa Mosque. In response, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, leading Israel to conduct retaliatory strikes. The cycle of violence continued to escalate with militants launching more than 4000 rockets and Israel conducting targeted killings of senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders. Israel undertook a campaign against Palestinian military and intelligence infrastructure in the Gaza strip, including destroying 60 miles underground tunnel networks and hundreds of rocket launchers and rocket manufacturing and storage facilities. By the time Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire on Thursday, 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis had been killed.

This article seeks, at a high level, to explain the context, drivers and actors involved in the violent escalation as well as the outlook for continued Israel-Gaza conflict.

Who is Hamas, and how did they come to power in the Gaza Strip?

Hamas is a Sunni Islamist U.S.-designated terror organization that seeks the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state. The group, based in the Gaza Strip, was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising, known as the First Intifada.

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In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip as part of an effort restart the Peace Process. Following the withdrawal, the internationally recognized Palestinian governing body, the Palestinian Authority, held elections in which its ruling Fatah party was defeated by Hamas. After Fatah, and most of the international community, refused to recognize the results of the election, Hamas violently expelled the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip, where it has remained the de facto governing body and has fought several wars and dozens of violent escalations with Israel.

Hamas receives military support from Iran, Israel’s preeminent adversary, including the rockets the group fired into Israel during the most recent escalation. Iran’s military support and Hamas’ long history of terror attacks have led Israel to implement a blockade on the coastal enclave, limiting the amount of dual-use (military and civilian) items that can enter Gaza. The blockade has had a detrimental impact on the economy and humanitarian situation in Gaza. However, as long as Hamas continues its support for terrorism and seeks weapons from Iran, the Israeli embargo will continue.

Are there other terror groups in the Gaza Strip?

Hamas is the strongest, but not the only, terror faction in the Gaza Strip. There are several other armed groups in Gaza that seek the destruction of Israel, namely Palestinian Islamic Jihad, known as PIJ, which is also a U.S.-designated terror organization. PIJ, founded in 1979 by exiled Muslim Brotherhood members in Gaza, is viewed as more extremist than Hamas and is reportedly solely funded and supplied by Iran. Israel has singled out PIJ in recent years as an instigator of Israeli-Gaza violence. In 2019, Israel assassinated Baha Abu al Atta, a senior PIJ military commander in Gaza which Israel says was responsible for a number of rocket and sniper attacks against Israel aimed at stoking Israel-Gaza tensions. In response to the killing, PIJ launched hundreds of rockets and Israel conducted strikes on PIJ military infrastructure before a ceasefire was reached. The series of events highlighted the prominent role of PIJ in the Gaza Strip and that terror organizations other than Hamas, while smaller, can still have a large impact on the overall conflict.

What are the root causes of Israel-Palestinian escalations violence?

An explanation of the core disagreements and history of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would require hundreds if not thousands of pages. At the risk of oversimplifying, this article will touch on a few of the triggers of escalation rather than the underlying root causes. This is not an all-encompassing list and omits some of the more complex triggers such as Israeli settlement policy and post-Arab-Israeli war housing disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, which would require an extended format for proper analysis. The triggers below were chosen due to their prominence in recent Israel-Gaza escalations of violence.

Religious Sites

The recent escalation stemmed, at least in part, from Israeli security measures at Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. There have been previous escalations over similar Israeli action in Jerusalem. For example, in 2017, following attacks on Israeli security forces in Jerusalem, Israel installed metal detectors near the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary), which prompted an escalation of violence. Jerusalem, the West Bank, and modern-day Israel are home to some of the most sensitive religious sites on the planet. Jews, Muslims and Christians all believe some of their most important religious events transpired occurred within a small geographic area.

The main site of contention is the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, where Jews and Christians believe Solomon’s Temple stood and where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven from atop the mountain. Jews, Christians and Muslims flock in troves to pray at their respective holy sites, bringing them in close proximity, which at times results in clashes. Further intensifying the situation is that Jerusalem is in Israel, a declared Jewish state. While Israel allows Palestinians and Muslims access to Islamic holy sites, the presence of Israeli security personnel near these locations often leads to conflicts between the security forces and Muslim worshipers.

Humanitarian Conditions in Gaza

Since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip, the group has been forced to take ownership of governance of one of the world’s most populous areas (more than 2 million Palestinians live in the roughly 150 square-mile-Gaza Strip). Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip to prevent weapons smuggling, along with international and U.S. sanctions on Hamas due to its terrorist activity, make it difficult for Hamas to maintain an economy and an acceptable quality of life for residents in Gaza.

When the humanitarian situation in Gaza becomes particularly dire, Hamas seeks to ratchet up the pressure on Israel to allow resources into Gaza by stoking violent escalations. Israel usually negotiates, via Egypt or Qatar, to allow resources into Gaza and achieve ceasefires with Hamas and other Gaza-based militant factions. These escalations normally stay below a certain threshold of violence but can spiral out of control if either side inflicts casualties or sensitive locations are targeted. For this reason, there is an unwritten understanding that during most escalations between Hamas and Israel, Hamas will only launch short-range rockets into Israel. These rockets are usually intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket and missile defense system, and Israel normally limits retaliatory airstrikes to empty outposts and facilities.

When rocket volleys increase in size and scope and target Israeli population centers, Israel takes the glove off and strikes more sensitive targets and sometimes conducts targeted killings of militant leaders or operatives. This was seen during the last two weeks with the targeting of senior Hamas and PIJ commanders, but this is not a new phenomenon and Israel has a well-documented history of assassinating key adversary leaders (see Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations).

During the recent escalation, Israel faced international backlash for striking targets in urban area. However, Israel struck these locations because Hamas was using them to coordinate and launch rocket attacks indiscriminately against Israeli population centers. While Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system performed well and limited Israeli civilian casualties, it is not perfect, and Israel still needed to target Hamas and PIJ terror sites which it attempts to shield behind civilian infrastructure. Interestingly, to ensure more urban targets are vacant prior to an airstrike, Israel conducts “roof knocking” operations in which inert munitions are dropped on targets to warn any occupants of follow-on missile attacks.

Spoilers

As Hamas carries the weight of governing authority, which gets much heavier during military confrontation with Israel, it generally seeks to avoid prolonged violence with Israel to avoid public backlash. However, other groups in Gaza, such as PIJ, are not constrained by governing responsibility and are able to act on their violent ideology more freely. While Hamas tries to stamp out such activities, the sheer number of militants and weapons in the Gaza Strip make enforcement difficult. As was the case of Abu al Atta, the PIJ commander assassinated by Israel in 2019, Israel recognizes that Hamas is not in full control of all rocket and cross border attacks from Gaza. While Israel consistently states that Hamas, as the de facto governing power in Gaza, ultimately has responsibility for preventing attacks on Israel, actions like the killing of Abu al Atta show Israel’s recognition that spoilers like PIJ seek to pit Israel and Hamas against and takes targeted action against those spoiler actors.

That said, at times Hamas likely uses the plausible deniability of other militant faction attacks against Israel to gain economic and humanitarian concessions from Israel without having to conduct direct attacks themselves. So, while not every rocket from Gaza has Hamas fingerprints on it, there are still times where Hamas is aware of and sanctions the attacks. This complicates attribution for Israel and is the predominant reason why Israel sometimes still strikes Hamas targets even when it knows other groups launched the attacks.

So, what is next?

Unfortunately, as long as Hamas, an internationally recognized terror group, retains control over the Gaza Strip, Israel and Gaza militants will continue their cycles of escalations, negotiations and ceasefires. And Hamas is not going anywhere anytime soon given their grip on Gaza and relative popularity amongst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This is evidenced by the fact that Palestinian legislative and presidential elections scheduled for this year, which were set to include Hamas candidates, were indefinitely suspended because the Palestinian Authority’s leading Fatah party feared another defeat like the 2006 election.

That said, and for the sake of this article, there are a few highly unlikely scenarios in which a relative peace could take hold between Israel and Gaza, similar to that that exists between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.

First, and most unlikely in the near term, is a final status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which includes the buy-in of Hamas. As things sit today, even a peace agreement with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority would only apply to the West Bank areas it controls, as Hamas almost certainly would oppose any peace agreement with Israel. Only if Israel were to offer major concessions and allow a Palestinian state that includes major portions of Jerusalem would Hamas even consider the deal, and that a near impossibility.

Second, and most costly, is an extended Israel-Gaza war where Israel unseats Hamas from power by force. This would be a devastating scenario for Israel and the Palestinians as the death toll, cost and international backlash of such a conflict are far beyond what either party is willing to stomach. Each side would much prefer the status quo of intermittent low intensity conflict, with extended escalations very few years, to continue for the foreseeable future before entering a full-scale war.

The final far-fetched possibility is the popular expulsion of Hamas from power by the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority. Given Hamas’ grip on power, military and security capabilities, and political popularity among Palestinians, this is also highly unlikely. Outside of more extreme factions within Gaza, such as PIJ, Hamas has almost no competition within Gaza. Unless Gazans overtime align with Fatah or more moderate Palestinian elements, Hamas will continue to govern the strip for the foreseeable future.

While the three scenarios above represent the most obvious resolutions to the conflict, history tells us that anything is possible. Just as Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza surprised the international community, so could their fall.

As long as Hamas controls Gaza Strip and seeks the destruction of Israel, the Israeli government (right, moderate and left) will continue its blockade of the coastal enclave. If divisions between the more moderate Palestinian Authority and the hardline Hamas leadership continue, a peace agreement that extends to Gaza is impossible as the Palestinians cannot come to an agreement amongst themselves, much less with the Israelis. And, most assuredly, if Iran continues to fund and provide military training and resources to Palestinian terror and militant groups, rockets will continue to be launched into Israel from Gaza and escalations of violence will continue. Israel will not, and should not, compromise its security and will continue to respond to attacks from Hamas and PIJ. As a result, the Palestinian Gaza public and Israelis living within range of rocket salvos will continue to be the victims of the endless cycle. Their safety, economic security, and humanitarian conditions will always be negatively impacted by terrorist activity and violence against Israel.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He currently works in business development at software company in Washington, D.C., focusing on the company’s intelligence community and defense work. He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

2 months ago

Guest: The SHIPYARD Act will help South Alabama

(M. Kittrell/Alabama NewsCenter)

A bipartisan bill in Washington could bring a welcome influx of cash and resources to South Alabama’s shipbuilding industry. Senators and representatives from Mississippi, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have introduced the Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks (SHIPYARD) Act, which would appropriate $25 billion toward shipyard infrastructure improvements (you can always count on Congress to fit a tongue-tying, mouthful of a bill title into a catchy acronym).

While the lion’s share of the dollars would go to public shipyards outside of Alabama, $4 billion is reserved for work at private new construction and repair shipyards. Austal’s shipyard in Mobile and the Ingalls facility in Mississippi — which employs scores of Alabamians — fall into both of those categories.

The measure comes amid efforts within Congress and the Pentagon to grow the U.S. Navy as a response to the growth of China’s military power. In 2020, the U.S. Navy released its 30-year shipbuilding plan, which aims to grow its current fleet of fewer than 300 ships to a whopping 546 ships by 2050. Doing so will require an estimated $25.6 billion per year over that period.

While that growth seems sharp and expensive, for Washington seapower advocates, the Navy cannot grow fast enough. In 2017, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a bill stating that established a U.S. policy to achieve a 355-ship Navy. Under the Navy’s plan, the U.S. will not hit that mark until the mid-2030s.

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As the Navy and Congress seek an increased fleet, private and public shipyards will need to grow their footprints to keep up with the demand. In late March, Austal, one of only seven private new construction shipyards in the U.S., took a major step towards increasing output by breaking ground on a production line for steel-hulled ships. The new line will enable Austal to compete for more Navy contracts, as Austal currently is only able to build aluminum-hulled ships.

The SHIPYARD Act, according to a white paper released by the bill’s sponsors, would subsidize efforts like Austal’s production line expansion, calling private shipyards the “lifeblood of our Navy.”

For nearly two decades, Austal has been providing the Navy with small surface combatant ships, namely the littoral combat ship (LCS). While the LCS program has faced harsh criticism for cost overruns and underperformance, most problematic LCS platforms originate from the Marinette Marine facility in Wisconsin, which produces a separate variant of the LCS.

During a late April hearing on Capitol Hill, the Navy’s leadership, Admiral Mike Gilday and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker, praised the performance of Austal-built LCS platforms conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South Pacific and counter narcotics missions Latin America. Gilday also testified that the Navy plans to further invest in the operational LCS fleet by outfitting the ships with Naval Strike Missiles. The move will add needed firepower to ships at the forefront of the U.S. effort to combat increasing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

So, what is next for the SHIPYARD Act?

Most of the bill’s key sponsors, including U.S. Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), are all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its Subcommittee on Seapower. While they will likely work to get some policy provisions of the bill into the committee’s upcoming mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act, the committee and NDAA can only authorize spending rather than actually appropriate dollars.

For appropriations, the bill will need approval of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the ranking Republican; he is also the top Republican on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Defense. Shelby has been a champion for South Alabama’s shipbuilding industry, overseeing appropriations for 20 Austal-built LCS and 15 Expeditionary Fast Transports ships, another platform produced by Austal for the Navy. Shelby has announced that he will retire at the end of his current term but will assuredly be laser-focused on supporting Alabama’s defense industry until his final day in office.

While no Alabama representatives are initial sponsors or cosponsors of the SHIPYARD Act, there will be plenty of opportunities for Shelby, along with U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Representative Jerry Carl (AL-01), Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Representative Mike Rogers (AL-03), to support the bill. Tuberville, Carl and Rogers all sit on the Armed Services Committee of their respective chambers, with Rogers serving as the lead House Republican on Armed Services; meanwhile, Aderholt is a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Defense.

Additionally, Representative Mo Brooks (AL-05), who is widely viewed as the current front-runner to replace Shelby in the Senate, also sits on the House Armed Services Committee and will be seeking the support of South Alabamians, including from Austal and Ingalls workers, for his campaign.

Outside of the defense committees, Congress is preparing to debate and consider President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, pitched as a move to overhaul U.S. infrastructure. SHIPYARD Act supporters are certain to push for the bill to be included in the legislation, arguing doing so would enable the economic and national security benefits of growing U.S. shipbuilding infrastructure.

Regardless of the vehicle for advancing the SHIPYARD Act, movement of a measure to assist U.S. shipyards is welcome news for the industry. While this bill alone will not be enough to ensure shipyards are ready to build the 355-ship navy, it shows that lawmakers on Capitol Hill are aware of the issue and want to act on it. And, as anyone who has worked in Washington can tell you, getting an issue on the table for discussion can be half the battle.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He currently works in business development at a software company in Washington, D.C., focusing on the company’s intelligence community and defense work. He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

2 months ago

Guest: State leaders should scrutinize Chinese overtures and investments in Alabama

(Pixabay, YHN)

Foreign investment in Alabama is not a bad thing. In fact, it should be encouraged under the right circumstances. However, as state leaders consider solicitations from foreign countries to bring business to Alabama, particularly from China, they should be vigilant and consider the long-term impacts it could have on America’s national security and Alabama businesses.

The good news is that business has been booming in Alabama, and business leaders expect that to continue. The influx of investment, much of it coming from companies based overseas, has strengthened and diversified Alabama’s economy and provided thousands of good-paying jobs in the state. Pro-business policies championed in the state have been a large catalyst to the growth, as have federal policies rewarding companies for keeping their operations within the United States rather than abroad.

This growth has led many state leaders to develop closer relationships with foreign countries, particularly with the communist People’s Republic of China. This has taken the form of seemingly harmless trips to China for state officials, sister state and sister city programs further linking Chinese officials to their counterparts in the United States, and lucrative investments in American states.

However, before getting into bed with China, state leaders should consider the warnings from the federal government about China’s influence operations in the United States. As the saying goes: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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Former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, prior to leaving office, warned state leaders that lucrative Chinese investment in the United States often falls under China’s long-term efforts to influence state policies and politicians to the Communist Party’s benefit. Saying that Chinese overtures are “not in the spirit of true cooperation or friendship” Pompeo urged state leaders to investigate who is truly behind the investments and China’s grooming of state officials.

Further, Trump-appointed and current Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray has also warned that Chinese investment in the United States is often linked to Chinese intelligence and influence operations. These efforts leverage connections within the United States to achieve China’s own foreign policy goals to the detriment of American and allied international efforts to promote democracy over authoritarianism and communism.

So, what is the real danger?

Among the immediate consequences of this cooperation that could be particularly dangerous to Alabamians is China’s well documented theft of intellectual property from American companies. The 2017 National Security Strategy estimated that China makes off with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of American technology each year. To do business with China, American companies are often required to provide sensitive data on critical technologies. China then uses that information to build a competitive edge for Chinese companies in an effort to eventually supplant American companies in the global market. So, accepting investment from China now could prove detrimental to companies down the road.

An issue in addressing this threat is that most of the information about such nefarious Chinese activities lives in the federal government and larger companies and does not always trickle down to officials at the state and local levels. To address this, Alabama’s congressional delegation, along with all members of Congress, should work with federal agencies that govern foreign investment in the United States, as well as with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI, to facilitate more information flow to the state level. Such information will help illuminate the threat of Chinese intellectual property theft and the long-term impact it can have on businesses in Alabama.

Another danger of investment from China is, as previously alluded to, their efforts to influence American state and local politicians and policies. FBI Director Wray said in a July 2020 speech that China uses its connections in state and local governments, enabled by their economic investment in those states, to influence business policies at the state and federal level. Sometimes, this is done through overt methods, but Wray said it can also be achieved through clandestine methods to coerce American politicians through blackmail and influence operations in which the hand of the Chinese government is hidden. Chinese intelligence activity, including these influence operations, is at an all-time high in the United States, with the FBI opening a new China-related counterintelligence operation every 10 hours, according to Wray. That should terrify all Alabamians, especially its political leaders, and spur them to demand action.

Much of the threat of coercion likely originates from the relationships and benefits Chinese officials offer to state officials to gain their favor. One of the key tools China uses to do this is providing free trips to China for key leaders. To hedge against this practice, the state of Alabama should consider legislation to strengthen the transparency surrounding officials’ travel to foreign countries, particularly those paid for by governments considered adversaries of the United States. It should also be easier for citizens of Alabama to access those disclosures, so the legislation should include requirements for a website and smartphone application where journalists and Alabama citizens can query the travel activities of their elected officials. This type of accountability exists for federal elected representatives in Congress and their staff. It should also exist for state leaders who are clearly a target of these Chinese activities.

A third, and far from the final threat Chinese investment poses to the American security, is the link between many Chinese companies and their military. Chinese investment in the United States often targets sectors that seem harmless at face value, such as precious metals or computer technology, but have dual-use applications in the military sphere. China can use the knowledge it learns and accesses through investing in unique American manufacturing and technology industries and transfer that knowledge to its military and security services.  Providing China’s military with superior American technology could have devastating consequences for free and fair trade around the world, particularly as the United States and its allies compete with China to establish global security and economic norms.

In a positive trend on this issue, Congress in 2018 strengthened the ability of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, known as CFIUS, to filter nefarious investment and procurement of American companies by China. This was done through the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 to update CFIUS’s authority and ability to block Chinese efforts to purchase sensitive technologies. While it is a welcome step forward, it does not remove all risk, and state and federal leaders should continue to strengthen protections against China’s efforts.

So, while not every foreign or Chinese investment in Alabama and other states is malign, state leaders should be prudent to not take Chinese overtures at face value. There are plenty of American partnered and allied nations that have and will continue to contribute to Alabama’s economy in more mutually beneficial arrangements than what is offered by China’s communist government. With the ongoing upgrades at the Port of Mobile, this will only become more of an issue as access to Alabama will prove more and more profitable for international actors. As business in Alabama continues to grow and diversify business interests in the state, our leaders should keep that in mind.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He currently works in business development at Palantir Technologies in Washington, D.C., focusing on the company’s intelligence community and defense work. He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Palantir Technologies, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

2 months ago

Guest: Examining the keys to a long, robust future for Alabama’s Austal USA

(Austal USA/Flickr)

Most people know that Alabama’s defense industry is a key driver of the state’s economy and major employer of Alabamians across the state. What can be less apparent is the impact that federal and state politics and polices have on the defense sector. With U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, set to retire at the end of this term, many federal, state and industry leaders are concerned that the flow of federal dollars could dry up.

The first two articles in this three-part series focused on the major challenges the Alabama congressional delegation and state leaders face to maintain North and Central Alabama’s defense sectors. This article will dive into the issues confronting Southwest Alabama, particularly the Gulf Coast’s shipbuilding industry.

The key programs that have driven the shipbuilding industry in Alabama are the Littoral Combat Ship, known as LCS, and the Expeditionary Fast Transport ship. The LCS program has been the more prominent of the two, sustaining thousands of jobs and $1.8 billion in economic impact in the Mobile area. While work continues on previously contracted ships, its builder, Austal USA, fell short in a bid to secure a contract to build the next generation of small surface combatants for the U.S. Navy. Austal will need to secure future contracts to remain afloat (pun intended).

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While the LCS did face challenges, it is now a significant asset of the Navy, particularly in combatting the flow of narcotics into the United States from South America and for projecting U.S. naval power in the South China Sea. Without the advocacy and support of Shelby, former Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), former Senator Luther Strange (R-AL) and former Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-01), LCS contracts would have been reduced or the program canceled altogether. This strong coordination and advocacy is a prime example of the benefits of the Alabama delegation working together, and it will be necessary for Mobile to remain a preeminent shipbuilder for the Navy.

Following Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Representative Jerry Carl’s (AL-01) elections in 2020, both freshman officials secured vital position on the Senate and House Armed Serviced Committees, respectively. Carl also secured a position on the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, which will further position him to influence legislation governing the Navy’s shipbuilding programs. Also of note, Representative Mike Rogers (AL-03) recently assumed the top Republican role on the House Armed Services Committee, where he will command GOP policy efforts on all military issues, including shipbuilding.

To secure the future of the shipbuilding industry in South Alabama, Austal will need to remain flexible and expand its ability to meet a wider range of future Navy requirements. The company took its first step in this direction in March when it announced it would open a production line for steel ships. Previously, Austal only produced aluminum-hulled ships which limited the programs it could compete for. This new capability will help Austal compete for the Navy’s light amphibious warship program and the Coast Guard’s offshore patrol cutter programs.

Next, it will need to prepare for future Navy needs such as autonomous ships and ships survivable against powerful adversary militaries like Russia and China, in line with the Navy’s most recent shipbuilding plan and the National Defense Strategy. These documents prioritize great power competition with Russia and China over the 20-plus years of low-intensity conflict the U.S. has waged in the Middle East. According to the Navy’s shipbuilding plan, the Navy will need to dramatically increase the size and sophistication of its fleet, culminating in a 355-ship fleet by the early-to-mid 2030s. Reaching that size will require all U.S. shipyards, especially Austal, to ramp up operations.

Austal’s efforts to grow its shipbuilding capability should be complemented by Alabama congressional engagement with Navy leadership and legislative efforts. Senators and representative need to be reinforcing the vitality the Alabama shipbuilding industry provides the Navy at a time when active U.S. shipyards are at an all-time low. These policy proposals should include support for a 355-ship navy, continued support for the Jones Act which supports U.S. ship manufacturing and emphasizing continued operational need for fast and agile small surface combatant ships, which are the specialty of the shipbuilders at Austal USA.

These efforts, in tandem with those laid out in the first two articles of this series, will ensure Alabama remains a preeminent provider of capabilities to the military, intelligence community and space sectors at a time of relative uncertainly in Alabama federal politics. To be sure, there will be pains following Shelby’s retirement. Very few members of the Senate grow to be as influential as he has, and even fewer can sustain that influence for decades.

However, all is not lost. Through coordinated efforts by the veteran and rookie members of the Alabama delegation and through concerted efforts during Shelby’s final two years in office, Alabama’s defense industry can continue to thrive to the benefit of the state’s economy and America’s national security.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

2 months ago

Guest: What’s next for Anniston Army Depot, Maxwell AFB, Fort Rucker?

(Maxwell Air Force Base, USAACE and Fort Rucker, Anniston Army Depot/Facebook, YHN)

With the approaching retirement of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), along with several new faces in Alabama’s congressional delegation, the state’s defense industry and leaders are rightly concerned about the flow of federal dollars running dry in the coming years. However, with a little under two years left of Shelby’s term and the remainder of the Alabama delegation well positioned to cement his legacy securing key defense funding for the state, it is not all doom and gloom.

This is the second of a three-article series covering the top challenges for Alabama’s state and federal leaders to ensure the state’s continued dominance as a defense industry powerhouse. While the first article focused on North Alabama and the effort to maintain U.S. Space Command’s basing in Huntsville, this article will cover the needs of the broadly defined Central Alabama defense industry.

Unlike North Alabama, Central Alabama’s defense equities are spread across a wide geographical area. For the purposes of this article, this area starts northeast of Birmingham at the Anniston Army Depot and runs as far south as Fort Rucker in the Wiregrass. The third article in this series will cover the defense issues of the Alabama Gulf Coast, which is confined to Alabama’s First Congressional District.

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Central Alabama’s military and defense footprint, while less concentrated than North Alabama’s, is significant and provides a large economic impact on the state. The main challenges facing this area are consistent workload for the Anniston Army Depot, state and local-level issues that risk continued military investment in and around Montgomery, and maintaining investment and resources for Fort Rucker.

Beginning at Anniston Army Depot, Alabama’s congressional delegation will need to undertake considerable efforts to ensure continued workload for the depot. Depots are used by the Army to maintain and upgrade its equipment to meet warfighter needs and maintain U.S. military readiness. In Anniston, that has included work on critical wheeled and tracked combat vehicles including the M1 Abrams tank and the Stryker combat vehicle. Notably, Anniston Army Depot was charged with outfitting the Army’s combat vehicles with upgraded armor on their hulls to protect occupants from improvised explosive devices, a go-to weapon for insurgents and terrorists attacking American troops in the Middle East over the last two decades.

Depots live and die on the amount of workload sent to them by the Army, sometimes directed by Congress as part of policy or funding bills. When a depot lacks strong workload, it is vulnerable to being closed as part of efforts by the Army and Defense Department to streamline business practices by centralizing its footprint. Lack of workload also opens arsenals, depots and bases to the threat of base realignment and closures, commonly referred to as BRAC, by which the Defense Department systematically combines and closes installations to achieve better efficiency.

To ensure Anniston Army Depot remains safe from BRAC or other efforts to close installations, the Alabama federal representation will need to team up to continue the flow of Army vehicles sent to the depot for maintenance or upgrade.

Alabama is well position to do just that. Shelby will remain the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee which approves all funds for the military. His new colleague, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), secured a coveted position on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is the chief policy committee for defense and military issues. This combination of policy and funding committee assignments positions Shelby and Tuberville well to complement each other’s efforts to support Anniston Army Depot.

Similarly, Alabama’s representatives in the House are members of both policy and funding committees covering defense. Most of all, Representative Mike Rogers (AL-03), whose district includes Anniston Army Depot, recently became the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee where he will lead GOP efforts on defense policy. He is joined on that committee by Representatives Mo Brooks (AL-05) and Jerry Carl (AL-01), who will likely be able to provide advocacy and key votes on workload for Anniston.

Additionally, Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04) holds a powerful position on the House Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee where, like Shelby, he will be able to influence funding bills for the military.

The second issue facing Central Alabama’s defense industry is not just an issue for federal lawmakers, but also state and local leaders. The Montgomery area is home to a large Air Force presence centered around Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, which hosts major training and education facilities. Maxwell is also home to the 100th Fighter Squadron, which descended from the famed Tuskegee Airmen’s “Redtails” squadron and is the future home to a squadron of F-35 stealth fighter aircraft.

However, it is not the military or federal funding that threatens the long-term viability of the Air Force footprint in Montgomery, it is the poor state of the local K-12 education system. Montgomery public schools have a well-documented history of poor academic performance, and Maxwell is ranked No. 150 out of the Air Force’s 154 installations in terms of the local public education quality. If state and local leaders fail to reverse the issues Montgomery schools face, they risk the Air Force deciding to forgo awarding future contracts or programs to Maxwell.

Leaders at the local level and the not-so-distant State House, should move quickly to determine the root causes of the underperforming schools and work to provide the necessary resources and policy changes to remedy the issues. Each passing year this issue goes unsolved, the more likely it is that the Air Force will look elsewhere at the cost of thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in economic impact in the Montgomery area.

RELATED: Alabama House sends to Ivey’s desk legislation making Alabama more friendly to military families

The third major issue for the Central Alabama defense industry is continued investment for Fort Rucker. With the retirement of former Representative Marth Roby (AL-02), who served on the House Armed Services Committee, and newly elected Representative Barry Moore (AL-02) lacking a seat on that committee, Fort Rucker lost a key supporter at the federal level. Moore can still work with Representatives Rogers and Carl to advocate Fort Rucker’s needs, but the loss of Roby has the delegation fighting with one hand behind its back.

Fort Rucker is the primary training location for the Army’s rotary-wing (helicopter) pilots. This designation requires large swaths of training territory, maintenance funds and investment in emerging technologies to protect the Army’s reputation as the world’s preeminent air assault and rotary transportation force. This has never been more important than now as the Army seeks an eventually replacements for its Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, which will require additional resources at Fort Rucker to field and train Army pilots on the new systems.

Rogers, Moore and Carl, whose combined district residents primarily staff Fort Rucker, will need to work in close coordination with their Senate colleagues to secure Fort Rucker’s continued leadership in these areas.

The Central Alabama defense industry’s future, and that of the entire state, rests in the seniority and numbers of its federal representation on key committees. Shelby and Rogers’ respective leadership roles on the appropriations and armed services committees, combined with Tuberville, Brooks, Carl and Aderholt’s strategic positions in Washington, leave Alabama in a great position to succeed. The challenge will be coordinating the efforts across the delegation to ensure maximum success of their legislative efforts, which can be difficult and uncommon in the politically charged, frantically busy halls of the Capitol and congressional offices.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

3 months ago

Challenges, opportunities ahead as North Alabama strives to remain an epicenter of America’s national security industry

(Team Redstone/Facebook, Wikicommons, YHN)

It is no secret that Alabama contributes heavily to the U.S. national defense. From rocket manufacturing facilities and Redstone Arsenal in North Alabama to the shipbuilders and Coast Guard base on the Gulf Coast, Alabama is key to the military, intelligence community, law enforcement and space sectors.

What many may not know is how reliant these industries are on politics and policy at the federal and state levels. For decades, the Alabama congressional delegation, led by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), has consistently secured authorization and funding for major defense and space projects to be completed in the Yellowhammer State. These efforts require countless hours of appropriations and policy negotiations in Washington, enabled by Shelby’s seniority on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

With Shelby set to retire in 2022 and several new faces in the congressional delegation, the Alabama defense industry and state leaders are concerned about the flow of federal dollars running dry in the coming years. However, it is not all doom and gloom. U.S. Representatives Mike Rogers (AL-03), Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Mo Brooks (AL-05) continue to hold key positions which will help continue Alabama’s dominance in the defense industry. In addition to these veteran lawmakers, newly elected U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and U.S. Representative Jerry Carl (AL-01) secured key committee and subcommittee assignments which will further aid in these efforts.

This article is the first of three covering the major challenges and opportunities the Alabama congressional delegation and state leaders will face to maintain Alabama’s preeminence in national security. Covering all of Alabama’s defense interests would take a more in-depth and lengthy study, so this is by no means intended to serve as an encyclopedic record of all the incredible work being performed in the state.

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The natural geographical starting point for this topic is North Alabama, home to some of the state’s — and the nation’s — most treasured defense manufacturers, headquarters and program offices. Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville houses NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Missile Defense Agency, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center and the FBI’s future “HQ 2” among many other government offices. The Rocket City also hosts countless defense contractors including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dynetics and Raytheon Technologies who perform most of the work to support the government presence in North Alabama.

While there are many pressing priorities in North Alabama for its leaders in Washington, there is one that requires the most effort, as its success could drive further growth — while its demise could be devastating.

This issue is protecting the Air Force’s decision to base U.S. Space Command in Huntsville. The Space Command decision, made in the final weeks of the Trump administration, is being contested by states who claim the decision was political in nature and represents a final effort by the former president to punish states he failed to secure in the 2020 election. Senators from California, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico have been vocal supporters of reopening the basing decisions, leading the Defense Department’s inspector general to open an inquiry into their accusations.

The good news is that the facts are on the side of Alabama, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — an Alabama native — and the Air Force have defended the original decision to base Space Command in Huntsville. The area’s relatively low cost of living, deep talent pool of highly qualified personnel, its growing federal footprint and the availability of the necessary facilities at Redstone Arsenal are what drove the Air Force’s decision, not politics.

That said, Huntsville is not out of the woods yet. The efforts to reopen the basing decision process will continue given the economic impacts at stake. The Alabama congressional delegation must continually combat the effort, which they are well equipped to do.

To start, Shelby still has about two years left in his term, during which he will continue his role as the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee which oversees all military and intelligence community funding.

Additionally, Shelby’s new colleague,  Tuberville, secured a coveted spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee that oversees military space programs. With these assignments, he will be at the table for all major policy and legislative negotiations on the military issues, including any legislation covering Space Command basing. Shelby and Tuberville will need to team up and coordinate their efforts on their respective committees to combat any legislative efforts to deprive Huntsville of Space Command.

Another major tool for Alabama is the key positions its representatives hold in the lower chamber. Rogers recently became the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, where he will be the decisive voice on military issues for House Republicans. Rogers is a long-time supporter of Space Command, having previously chaired the Armed Services subcommittee covering military space issues and helped lead the effort to create Space Command and the Space Force. Space Force is the newest military branch and is responsible for organizing, training and equipping space personnel for the joint force, including to Space Command which is charged with fighting and winning future wars that extend into space.

Also on the House Armed Services Committee are Brooks — who has now been endorsed by Trump to replace Shelby in the Senate — and newly elected U.S. Representative Jerry Carl (AL-01); they will also be able to lend a voice and vote to the effort to retain Space Command.

Lastly, but certainly not least, Aderholt is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and, like Shelby, is also a member of the Defense Subcommittee. Aderholt, who serves as the ranking Republican on the subcommittee governing NASA’s budget, will be able to multiply the efforts of Rogers, Brooks and Carl through advocacy and language in appropriations bills and negotiations for the next fiscal year.

In all, Alabama’s strong representation on the House and Senate committees governing military spending and policy will be key to safeguarding Space Command’s presence in North Alabama. With a combined effort, it will be difficult for states to scuttle the economic impact Space Command will supply not only to Huntsville, but the entire state and Tennessee Valley region.

Beyond Space Command, there are many other important issues to be minded in Washington. The Huntsville-based ICBM-defense program, continued investments in hypersonic weapons being built by Dynetics and Lockheed, and support for United Launch Alliance’s world-class space launch vehicle manufacturing facility in Decatur are among the many challenges lying ahead. Each of these, and many more, will require concerted and coordinated efforts by Alabama’s federal and state elected leaders to maintain North Alabama’s role as an epicenter of America’s national security industry.

Jake Proctor is a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously held staff and defense policy positions for U.S. Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Luther Strange (R-AL), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). He is a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama and the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.