Friday News Roundup — March 27, 2020
Democracy in a Pandemic; Cool Helicopter Stuff; Another Putin Power Grab; Plus News You May Have Missed
Good Friday morning from Washington, DC. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, and the economic consequences become clear, this week in Washington focused on the estimated $2 trillion economic support plan, as well as the debate over how long pandemic mitigation can continue. All of this takes place as the United States surpasses China in official case count, with concern growing about a surge of cases in New York City, and rapidly growing counts in many other areas.
In light of the pandemic, CSPC is holding its Spring Presidential Fellows conference this week, albeit virtually, with college students joining from around the world as they adapt to working from home. Many are college seniors who are seeing their final semester celebrations disrupted — yet they continue their amazing, in-depth research. Look here next week as we announce the winners of the awards for best research papers.
In this week’s roundup, Chris covers how CSPC is working with partner organizations to ensure that every eligible voter can feel safe exercising their right to vote in 2020. Ethan looks at how the U.S. military is seeking to update its helicopter fleet after decades of service. Joshua dives into the latest maneuvers by Vladimir Putin to expand his powers. Dan & Erica are virtually “on assignment” with our fellows. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
Vote By Mail, Now More Than Ever
This week, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress was pleased to join a coalition of reform groups in launching Fix the System. A new organization dedicated to harnessing the combined efforts of the political reform community, Fix the System includes stakeholders of all political stripes. The coalition is committed to reforms that promote effective governance and fair representation for all, and doing so in a way that gives everyone a seat at the table. While many of our preferred reforms include solutions such as ending gerrymandering and ranked-choice voting, there is one reform that has come to the fore more than others in the midst of the COVID-19: vote by mail.
With many rightfully choosing to remain in their homes whenever possible during this challenging period, everyday activities have come to a screeching halt. While businesses such as restaurants are forced to deliver food or shut down until the pandemic has been alleviated, these problems seem relatively minor compared with the effects the disease could have on American democracy. Even in just the first two weeks of the crisis, multiple states have delayed their Democratic primary elections months into the future. The precedent this action sets is a dangerous one, and should not be thought of whatsoever in the scheme of the general election this November. Allowing voters to cast ballots from home could solve this issue easily.
Three states (Colorado, Washington, and Oregon) already conduct all elections by mail. In these jurisdictions, ballots are mailed to voters weeks before election day to be filled out at the voter’s leisure. As long as the ballot is postmarked on or before election day and is filled out correctly, the vote is counted just as it would be in an in-person election. Although it may take longer to count ballots as they are delivered, the benefits of this system are numerous and obvious in the states that have enacted this system. In both the 2016 general election and the 2018 midterm election, states that use mail-in ballots saw 10% greater voter turnout. It is easy to understand why this occurred. Many voters simply do not have extra time on election day to vote — whether due to work, childcare, or some other preoccupation, many working-class people simply must forgo a trip to the polls.
While some states have recently come under fire for closing polling places in majority-minority precincts, voting by mail would likewise eliminate this issue. Although in-person voting could remain an option in elections with no pandemic looming, mailing ballots would allow minority voters to participate even if polling places in their neighborhood are closed. This option would also reduce wait times at the polling places that do exist, as demand to vote in person would be reduced. In essence, this would mitigate some unacceptable racial disparities in the current electoral process.
Simultaneously enacting ranked-choice voting eliminates one of the small drawbacks of voting by mail. While a normal first-past-the-post ballot simply asks voters to choose one candidate that they prefer in each election, ranked-choice voting allows them to rank candidates in order of preference. The former system could hypothetically pose an issue: if a voter sends in their ballot two weeks before election day and the candidate they voted for drops out of the race or is unable to stand for election, their vote could not be counted. Under ranked-choice voting, said voter’s ballot would simply be reallocated to their second choice candidate, an allowance built into the system.
There are arguments against voting by mail, all of which fall flat in the face of further examination. First, some argue that voting by mail is less secure than in-person voting, which is untrue. In fact, the digital machines used in many physical polling stations are vulnerable to tampering, and many do not leave a paper trail for verifying results. Voting by mail necessarily leaves a paper trail, allowing election officials to physically count ballots if discrepancies are discovered. Further, ballots are marked with barcodes unique to each voter, and are not delivered if said voter has changed addresses. As long as voter rolls are kept up-to-date (something Americans should demand either way), ballots would be delivered to the correct person and would be more secure than under conventional voting practices.
Although only three states use mail-in-ballots exclusively, multiple allow voters to choose whether to cast ballots in this way. States in which more than 60% of votes are cast by mail represent all political stripes, including Arizona, Hawaii, and Utah. Voting by mail does not advantage one party over another, it simply allows a broader swath of the electorate to participate in our democracy.
Voting by mail saves public money, allows more voters to participate in the political process, and increases turnout in elections up and down the ballot. If these benefits are somehow unconvincing, consider the current pandemic situation. If we force voters to gather at polling stations to cast ballots, we would be endangering the public and encouraging the spread of COVID-19. If we postpone the election, we would be acting in an unprecedented way to the detriment of democracy itself. In this situation, the only responsible, logical option is to allow voters to cast ballots from the comfort of their own homes. It is a solution that makes sense at all times, but now more than ever.
The Evolution of U.S. Army Light Attack: Future Vertical Lift
While not as catchy as the continuing global pandemic and its $2 Trillion stimulus packages, significant news came out of the DoD this week with the US Army announcing a narrowing of the competitive field for the vendors aiming to develop the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). This matters since the US continues to lean forward on a National Security Policy under the umbrella of Great Power Competition and its many challenges. Among those challenges is the DoD’s aging inventory (both US Air Force and the Navy are dealing with this problem), which requires upgrades to address threats from peers and flexibility in projected operating environments (think South Pacific island chains and urban warfare). The recently culled field opened with multiple competitors, but the US Army has opted to award the final phase of design pitches to Sikorski and Bell for its UH-60 Blackhawk and OH-58D Kiowa replacements, respectively.
Inventory Overhaul: Lift/Medevac
A key component to the US Army’s force projection and direct engagement of the enemy is in its indigenous lift capability, owing to the Air Assault/Cavalry’s 20th century evolution and for which the Vietnam War is renowned. The Vietnam conflict was the first mass application of rotary wing combat power (cue “Fortunate Son” on the PA system), and offered a profound shift in maneuver, search and rescue, and combined arms doctrine. For the past four decades, the Army has relied on the UH-60 Blackhawk -the Cadillac of the rotary wing world- for its Air Assault and medium cargo platform (pictured below).
The UH-60 and its variants, despite a profound and highly successful service record, remains a Reagan era relic and lacks the range and austere operational capacity needed to address Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. As exemplified by the US Air Force transition to its 5th Generation F-22 and F-35, in addition to the DoD’s dogged pursuit of the JADC2 Command and control, upgrading the old horse is not an option. Rather a new lift capability, able to integrate into the future of C2 and crafted on principles of range, survivability, and modularity needs in the GPC era is necessary.
The RAIDER-X won the lift nomination for multiple reasons. The first and simplest was that Sikorski had an actual flight-tested prototype built and displayed, dubbed the S-97 Raider. The second and most notable was that the Sikorski design offers ultra-rigid coaxial rotors (generating considerably greater lift/power), and its pusher-propeller that overcome traditional rotary wing limitations of range and speed. These upgrades in performance are what drive the decision by the US Army, as the Sikorski prototypes (constructed in an engineering marriage with Boeing) offer those requirements for distance, reliability under austere conditions, and role-interchangeability that will be the norm of future conflict.
Inventory Overhaul: Light Attack
For a Light Attack Capability (ostensibly the precursor to the ‘Fires’ Long Range Assault Aircraft construct), the US Army relied on an OD-green wasp for more than half a century. Familiar to anyone who saw early to mid era combat in the Global War on Terror, or enthusiasts of rotary aviation platforms: the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior provided this light attack capability. However, much like the painful and arduous discussion on the necessity of 4th generation aircraft in the USAF/USN inventory during the Stealth/Joint Strike Fighter era, the US Army has opened its acquisitions mechanisms in search of a Kiowa platform reprisal (and potential AH-64 replacement). But unlike the failed RAH-66 Comanche, (a ‘stealth’ Light Attack Rotary Wing system whose downfall is owed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and a constantly expanding list of requirements by Army Brass), the FLRAA program is firmly entrenched in clear, concise requirements and the recent competition culling demonstrates that.
The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior entered service with the US Army in the early 1960s, and received its baptism in fire during the Vietnam conflict. In a war exemplified by the use of rotary wing aircraft, the Kiowa Warrior made its marks as a modular, durable, and simple system of supporting ground forces with close fires, a scout/reconnaissance capability, and ease of upgrade to integrate with other Attack Weapons Systems like the AH-64 Apache gunship. The author can attest to the efficiency of this system, having employed its fires capability in the mountains of Afghanistan before it’s retirement. Stories of the co-pilots leaning out of the window and engaging with on board small arms once ‘Winchester’ on aircraft ammo, are also true.
What the Army lost with the moth-balling of the Kiowa was the light attack capability, the Scout/recon expertise typically aligned with the maneuver of large contingents of troops in a force on force construct. Counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan saw a reduced utilitarian value in this light platform, opting for massing firepower instead. Hence, the AH-64 took up the preponderance of rotary wing fires in the GWOT troops in contact scenarios.
If it hasn’t been obvious from the beginning of this analysis, under the premise of a post-GWOT conflict paradigm, the Army realized the need for a return to this light attack capability. As such, the beneficiary of this demand is Bell, whose tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey demonstrates an eye for futurized/revolutionary aircraft design.
The Bell 360 Invictus reprises the Light Attack/Scout capability of the Kiowa Warrior, but again builds the platform against actual, rational requirements for C2 integration, survivability, and range. While Bell is most well-known for its tilt-rotor Osprey technology, the reality is that Bell’s initial tilt-rotor design for the Light Attack model was not feasible for urban combat application, as the width of the body was not suitable for navigating the urban corridor between large buildings in order to provide close fires. Thus, the Invictus plays on a traditional rotary wing design greatly reduced in size, modernized avionics/communications, and with added winglets to increase stability. The role of the FLRAA system doesn’t require a sledgehammer or freight train, it needs a light, durable, and modular platform that moves with the force and offers proximity firepower. The Bell 360 offers that and more.
GPC and the Future of US Rotary Wing development
The Army is fully engaged in modernizing to meet the future combat paradigms, and the next generation of aviation platforms will be built against the requirements for meeting future threats. If the discussion involves the re-taking of Taiwan from the PLA, or pushing back on Iranian expansion in the Middle East, or Russian Federation incursion into European allied states, the US Army needs helicopters capable of adapting to a variety of missions with ease and connectivity. 21st century warfare will demand a secure plug and play interoperability, and the RAIDER-X/360 Invictus will be the flagships of the Army’s Modular Open Systems Architecture, essentially the Army slice of the JADC2.
In closing, despite the pandemic, the US Army is still preparing for the next conflict, and the technological evolution of its systems promises to keep pace with the changing threats to our National Security, even if it means replacing some beloved classics.
The views are of the author, and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.
Putin’s Bid to Extent Power on Hold, Temporarily…
President Vladimir Putin’s bid to extend his leadership of Russia beyond the end of his next term is temporarily on hold as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The referendum, originally scheduled for April 22, is being pushed to a later, but undetermined future date. The national vote is the last hurdle before Putin could see his tenure as Russia’s president extended, potentially, until 2036 at which time Putin would be 83.
Under the proposed amendment, Putin would be allowed to run again in 2024 at the end of his second sequential term as president. Under Russia’s constitution, he is obligated to stand down after two terms. Previously, Putin engineered a positional swap with Dmitry Medvedev, becoming prime minister, only to return as president in the next term, thereby circumventing the nominal limitation on his term.
Thus far the proposal cleared all previous hurdles. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passed the constitutional amendment in early March without any dissent, with the constitutional court approving the measure less than a week later.
The vote will end the machinations that began in January of this year with the surprise reshuffling of the government, removal of Medvedev as prime minister and appointment of Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the tax service, in his place.
It is all but certain that, once the referendum is rescheduled, Putin will succeed in his efforts to remain in power. Despite some small protests in Moscow, there is little public opposition to Putin’s proposed changes and his remaining in power.
Russia & COVID
In his first address to the nation since the COVID pandemic, Putin struck a cautious, but positive tone saying, “Owing to measures taken in advance, we have so far been basically successful in slowing a broad and rapid spread of the disease.” He warned, “However, we should understand that Russia cannot fence itself off from this threat if only because of its geographical location.”
By contrast, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin downplayed the crisis saying, “There is no de facto epidemic [here].” He added, “And de facto our situation is much better than in many countries, that is definitely due to the measures that our government began to take in advance in advance.”
Russia’s Ministry of Health reported 658 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 29 recoveries and a single death., but many are suspicious that the numbers are artificially low. Some speculate that the low numbers and small response measures may be an effort by the Kremlin to portray Russia as escaping the worst of the crisis.
Putin mandated a week-long national paid holiday lasting from March 28 to April 5. He also announced a series of measures to strengthen the economy and reduce the potential impact of the crisis on unemployment. Under these measures, welfare payments are automatically extended by six months, small and medium sized businesses are exempt from all taxes except the value-added tax, and eligible families will receive additional allowances for three months.
The day after his nationwide address, Russia announced it was closing its borders and halting all international flights, except for those bringing Russians abroad, home. Interestingly, Russia did not begin testing returning Russians for COVID until recently, suggesting again that the number of cases within the country may be higher than the numbers indicate. Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, warned that “Half of all people who came from abroad passed through Moscow, and the Muscovites themselves love to travel as well… Many people have also visited Courchevel and brought a suitcase of viruses from there.”
Thus far there have not been any movement restrictions within the country, but schools, concerts, and large gatherings are slowly being closed in Moscow. Interestingly, Putin has not said whether or not the military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Germany in World War Two will be cancelled or postponed.
Tentatively scheduled for 9 May, this is an extremely popular patriotic and nationalist event and Putin would likely be loath to cancel the parade, particularly now that the referendum is postponed. Cloaking himself in the trappings of Russia’s Great Patriotic War would do much to reinforce Putin’s leadership image, especially at a time of national and international turmoil.
The economic measures, sensible in any crisis, are almost certainly an effort to maintain popular support for Putin amidst his drive to remain in power. Amending the constitution to extend his presidency to 2036 will be considerably easier in the event the people are happier and not feeling the full effects of the COVID downturn, or if they do not suspect the situation is far graver than it actually is in reality. The mixed messaging between Putin, Peskov, and Sobyanin does not instill confidence that the situation is well in hand or understood.
News You May Have Missed
Across the globe, thousands of Americans have been left in limbo concerning their ability to return to the United States largely due to poor communication from the State Department and various embassies. Many Americans have lost faith in the U.S. government bringing them back home especially after some have been told to not rely on their support by their corresponding embassies. Others have participated in “risky border crossings from Guatemala into Mexico” with extra money to bribe custom officials or have chartered private jets from “a private security firm staffed by former military and intelligence officers”. Secretary Pompeo has drawn sharp criticisms from many members of Congress whose constituents are stranded overseas, especially after Pompeo recently posted a picture of his wife and himself working on a puzzle at home with the T.V. on in the background. While attempts have been made by private and commercial companies to provide flights to the stranded citizens, several of those planes have been forced to turn back “after the State Department was unable to secure permission to land”.
Nearly a month has passed since nearly all of Italy was shut down by the government with the exception of supermarkets and other essential businesses. Originally labeled as a “draconian” response, countries around the globe are following suit in efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Various social media posts have presented glimpses of life in Italy nowadays from empty roads and plazas that are usually bustling with tourists and persons going about their daily business, to haunting singing in the dark of night, to a new daily tradition to sing loved Italian classics at scheduled times with all from windows and balconies. People have used projectors to show movies of the walls of apartment buildings for those who wish to watch and others have joined together in impromptu musical performances. Everyday in Sienna, at 9 p.m., everyone participates in “Siena Canta (Siena Sings), where residents chant out of their windows to raise donations for emergency responders and the Siena hospital.” Italy’s response of attempting to remain connected with each other in this new environment has not only become a new pastime around the country, but it has also helped to spread hope and boost national morale.
Earlier this week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the COVID-19 threat as “a little flu” and blamed the media for overreacting. After asking states to end state of emergencies and reopen public transportation, schools, and businesses, governors across the nation have distanced themselves from him. Governors who both have typically allied with and against President Bolsonaro alike were critical of his stance. The President’s statements and backlash mirror those in the United States, where President Trump hopes to end restrictions on gatherings and businesses by Easter, even though experts claim this is too soon. Brazil currently reports 2,915 cases of COVID-19 and 77 deaths.
Amidst the current panic purchases of toilet paper across the country, deputies encountered a man driving a stolen truck containing 18,000 pounds of the commonly sought-after product. The truck was spotted just outside of Greensboro, NC, where deputies followed it to a warehouse. At the time of writing, the Guilford County Sheriff’s department had not made any arrests, though they suspect the driver of stealing the vehicle from somewhere nearby. Many nationwide retailers have reported low stocks of toilet paper in stores in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is not yet a shortage in supply.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.