Monday, January 24, 2022

Stop Putin now

 The situation in Ukraine is deteriorating. Over the weekend, the British claimed to have exposed a plot by Russia to replace Ukraine’s government with friendly puppets while the US has ordered nonessential diplomatic staff and civilians to leave the country. President Biden is considering deploying thousands of US troops to the threatened country. The situation is dire with 100,000 Russian troops poised to sweep across the border.

The British government did not issue specifics on the Russian plot, but said in a statement, “We have information that indicates the Russian government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.” The Russians dismissed the claim as propaganda.

Little Green Men: Unidentified Russia-backed soldiers on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. 2014 By Elizabeth Arrott / VOA - Voice of America website

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The Washington Post reported that NATO is deploying additional troops and fighter jets to the region, quoting a statement that said the defense organization is “putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to NATO deployments in eastern Europe, reinforcing Allied deterrence and defense as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine.”

All this has combined to present Joe Biden with the greatest foreign policy crisis that any president has faced in years. The last equivalent crisis would be Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. That invasion was allowed to stand and undoubtedly whetted Vladimir Putin’s appetite for conquest.

Unfortunately, the president has sent mixed messages to Putin about the US and NATO response. Mr. Biden was criticized for comments about the difference between a full-scale invasion and a “minor incursion” last week. Although the White House has tried to walk back and clarify Biden’s comments while affirming the US commitment to Ukraine, what he said seems to reflect the truth that everyone already knows. The US and NATO are unlikely to go to war over a small conflict in Ukraine. After all, we didn’t draw a line in the sand eight years ago.

On Twitter, Patrick Chovanec pointed out that the Ukraine crisis is reminiscent of the 1948 blockade of Berlin by the Soviets. President Truman resolved that crisis with the Berlin airlift. Sadly, our leaders these days are not the same quality as Harry Truman.

And I do mean “leaders” in its plural sense. I’ve seen several people longing for Donald Trump and claiming that his unpredictable nature would have prevented Putin from escalating the Ukraine crisis. Trump was certainly unpredictable, although a weak leader in his own right, but these revisionist claims ignore that Trump was a Putin fanboy who sided with Russia over US intelligence in Helsinki in 2018 and then bowed to the Russian leader on the way out. Trump’s record on Russia was mixed at best with the Trump Administration lifting many sanctions on Russia and Putin’s allies. The overwhelming evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in support of Trump strongly suggests that Putin is not intimidated by The Former Guy.

What’s more, former Trump aides indicated that if Trump had won a second term, he planned to withdraw the US from both NATO and South Korea. The removal of American soldiers from Europe would have made Mr. Putin’s conquest of Ukraine quite a bit easier. While it’s easy to imagine Donald Trump making threats over the situation in Ukraine, it’s tougher to imagine the isolationist intervening to stop “Mad Vlad.”

No matter how the election of 2020 turned out, we’d probably be facing a similar crisis with a weak leader. We can’t say for sure how it would have played out under a second Trump term, but what we can know for sure is that the time to stop Vladimir Putin is now.

There is a clear pattern since Putin came to power in 1999 of the new Russia rebuilding the empire of its glory days. Putin began with a reconquest of the breakaway republic of Chechnya and then seized the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia in 2008. Then, of course, there was the invasion of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine in 2014.

This pattern indicates that there is no former Soviet republic or territory of the tsarist empire that doesn’t have a reason to fear Vladimir Putin. Beyond Ukraine, the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are prime targets. Other countries, such as Belarus, where fighter jets forced down an airliner in order for security forces to arrest a dissident journalist last year, already have pro-Putin regimes installed. Incidentally, Raman Pratasevich is apparently still in jail although the US indicted several Belarussian officials for air piracy last week.

Vladimir Putin and his puppets will continue to push until the West pushes back. Like Hitler, Putin just wants a little piece. A little piece of Ukraine. A little piece of the Baltics. Maybe even a little piece of Poland.

Also, like Hitler, Putin is popular at home because he has been a winner. The nationalists like the fact that Putin is making Russia great again and restoring the empire. It’s even better because the price in terms of Russian blood has been very low. With few casualties, public discontent with Putin’s aggressive policies has been stifled.

However, it’s doubtful that Putin wants a serious war with NATO. His gambit is that the West will stand down and let him have his way with Ukraine or at least negotiate a deal that gives him concessions. That may be where the British information on the plot to install a pro-Putin regime comes in.

Many right-wing pundits, such as the frowny-faced and perpetually outraged Tucker Carlson, give Putin cover by blaming NATO for deepening its ties to Ukraine, never considering that the former Soviet republics once lived under Russian rule for decades if not centuries and don’t want to repeat the experience. To put it in WWII terms, Carlson hopes to appease Putin by allowing him to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence. I think he’s dangerously wrong.

If Russia is allowed to take Ukraine (or another piece of it), Putin will keep returning to the well every few years to take a little more. As we saw in the 1930s, the appetites of dictators can be insatiable and Russia’s old stomping grounds go at least as far as Poland and halfway through Germany. Eventually, things may reach a point where the only choice is to fight or let the crocodile eat the whole of Europe.

The lesson from the 1930s and countless other authoritarian expansionist regimes is that the world should stand up to bullies. If this is accomplished early enough in the process, the bullies will back down or at least be easier for the coalition of free nations to defeat. When bullies lose face by backing down, it also encourages their domestic opposition.

I don’t want a war. That’s especially true since I have a high school senior who is leaning heavily towards enlisting in the military after graduation. I don’t want my son and other American boys and girls to be sent nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what European boys and girls ought to be doing for themselves.

I don’t want war, but as John Stuart Mill once said, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse.”

I believe that the best way to avoid risking a lot of American lives in the near future is with a show of resolve right now. President Biden is considering deploying as many as 5,000 American soldiers plus ships and aircraft into the crisis zone. He has also warned Russia that an attack on Ukraine will be met with heavy sanctions. These are good moves.

President Biden needs to talk tough and let Putin know in no uncertain terms that an invasion of Ukraine will not be tolerated and that his aggression will not be rewarded. And the president needs to stand firm and follow through if Putin does launch an attack.

Whatever happens in the current crisis, we haven’t seen the last of Vladimir Putin. Whether he succeeds or fails in his current moves, he will try again. We need to be ready when he does, diplomatically, militarily, and emotionally.

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I noted last week that The Former Guy lost a Supreme Court case that involved protecting his executive records from being turned over to congressional (and other) investigators. It became clear pretty quickly why Mr. Trump didn’t want his private records being released.

Among the records that have been uncovered so far were draft Executive Order that would have empowered the Department of Defense to “seize, collect, retain and analyze all machines, equipment, electronically stored information, and material records required for retention under” US law that relates to preserving election records. Politico has a pdf of the original document online for review.

It isn’t clear who authored the EO and it was never signed or issued, but the author cites classified documents. This indicates high-level input to the draft order, which also cited election conspiracy theories but failed to point out an “unusual and extraordinary threat” that would have triggered federal law.

A seizure of voting machines as part of an effort to undo a lost election should never have been put to paper in the United States, even if it wasn’t ultimately acted upon. The January 6 commission and the DOJ need to keep digging and exposing the depravity of Donald Trump and his associates.

Bit by bit, it is becoming ever more clear just how close America came to a really bad situation after the 2020 election. The Capitol insurrection was only the tip of the iceberg.


I didn’t watch football this weekend since Georgia wasn’t playing, but here’s the Tweet of the Day. I don’t care who you are, this is funny. For my second favorite take on the game, check out our Facebook and Twitter feeds this afternoon at 6 pm Eastern.


IN-LAW update: I mentioned on Friday that my in-laws both have COVID. So far, they are plugging along with no serious complications. They are very fatigued and my father-in-law has a cough, but they are otherwise not faring too poorly and are in good spirits.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Fake electors should be prosecuted

 Last week yet another lowlight of the 2020 post-election was revealed when the fact that members of the Trump campaign were involved in a plot to replace duly-elected members of the Electoral College with Trump loyalists came to light. The reports dovetail nicely with other revelations about how Team Trump hoped to force the election into the House of Representatives where they believed that Republican-led state delegations would reject the will of the people and proclaim Donald Trump the winner.

It was public knowledge back in December 2020 that the Trump campaign was openly promoting a strategy of holding sessions to elect competing electors. What was not apparent at the time was just how far Trump’s allies were going behind the scenes to accomplish the mission. More evidence of the plot was unveiled in March 2021 when American Oversight, a nonpartisan group that describes itself as a “watchdog,” obtained copies of fraudulent electoral vote certificates for seven states from the National Archives.

The John Eastman memo, which I’ve noted before comprised a blueprint for stealing the election, specifically mentioned using “multiple slates of electors” as a pretext for setting aside the Electoral votes of "seven states.” The states were not named in the memo, but the evidence from the National Archives allows us to firmly identify them as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico (where Trump lost by 11 points), Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

At this point, the plot is no longer speculation. There is evidence of both intent and action that followed up the plotting. The phony electoral certificates are signed by the fake electors and various Republican officials. These can be added to the smoking guns already unearthed, but in this case, the smoking guns are endorsed with the signatures of the people involved.

What’s more, CNN has obtained an audio recording of Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, who described the Trump campaign’s involvement in the fake elector plot.

At an event sponsored by Stand Up Michigan, Maddock said that her husband, Michigan State Rep. Matt Maddock “fought for investigations into every part of the election we could. He fought for a team of people to come and testify in front of the committee. We fought to seat the electors. Um, the Trump campaign asked us to do that.”

In two states, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, some Trump electors got cold feet and inserted caveats in the paperwork that stipulated that they were not the official electors representing their states. In New Mexico, the certificate said that the undersigned electors understood that “it might later be determined that we are the duly elected and qualified Electors” for Trump. The Pennsylvania certificate stipulated that it would be official “if, as a result of a final non-appealable Court Order or other proceeding prescribed by law, we are ultimately recognized as being the duly elected and qualified Electors.” A number of electors from various states, including former senator Johnny Isakson from Georgia, apparently wanted no part of the proceedings and were absent from the process. In five out of the seven states, however, the fraudulent electors claimed to be the official and legal electors for their states.

People who did not opt out of the coup attempt include a number of high-profile Republican activists. Nancy Cottle, first vice president of the Arizona Federation of Republican Women, and former state GOP chair “Chemtrail” Kelli Ward were among the signers from Arizona. David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia GOP, signed the Peach State’s fraudulent certificate. A signature spot for Gov. Kemp was notably blank. Kathy Berden is Michigan’s representative to the Republican National Committee. The list goes on and on.

At this point, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that Rudy Giuliani was at the center of the fraudulent elector plot. CNN cites three sources who said the former New York mayor was personally involved in working with GOP state contacts. The sources also said that the Trump campaign was directly involved in designating replacement electors, securing meeting rooms, and circulating the fake electoral certificates.

There are a lot of gray areas in the plot to overturn the election results. There are valid arguments on both sides regarding whether Donald Trump’s speech to the Stop the Steal rally met the very high legal bar to be considered incitement of a riot. As we learned during Trump’s impeachment trials, there is also no broad, overarching law that says that elected officials cannot abuse their power for personal gain.

That does not seem to be the case for the fraudulent electors though. The attempt to replace the duly-chosen electors seems tailor-made for fraud prosecution at both the federal and state level.

Federal law makes it illegal to “knowingly and willfully… make any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or make or use any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.”

The electors can say that they were deceived into signing a fraudulent document, but, after Donald Trump’s claims to have actually won were thrown out by numerous courts for lack of evidence, the electors lacked a reasonable grounds for the belief that Trump had won the election and they were real electors. Evidence for this is the fact that electors from two states acknowledged Biden’s victory and that numerous Trump electors declined to take part in the “shadow” electoral process.

A lot of people, especially within the Republican Party, are inclined to sweep the entire matter of Trump’s coup attempt under the rug and let bygones be bygones. In my opinion, I don’t think that we can afford to do that.

A coup attempt that is left unpunished and not treated seriously will only lead to more coup attempts. As Steve Berman pointed out, that might take the form of another Trumpist coup attempt or it might be some future Democrat who builds upon the strategies that Donald Trump pioneered. Either possibility should alarm us.

I’ve heard quite a few Republicans say that there was really no harm done since the plot failed and the Constitution was ultimately upheld. To me, that’s like Sideshow Bob’s response when he was convicted of attempted murder after trying to kill Bart Simpson.

If Republicans want to put January 6 and the attempt to steal the election behind them, party officials like David Shafer and Kathy Berden need to be dismissed. Keeping these people in their positions of power is an endorsement of their illegal activities. In New Mexico, the attorney general has referred the fraud to federal investigators, but Republicans should not wait for indictments to take action to purify their party of the coup plotters.

But it shouldn’t end there. Investigators need to treat the election coup plot like the prosecution of a mafia don. Start prosecuting low-level players and get them to flip on people higher up in the conspiracy. Follow the threads and see where they lead.

The people who tried to steal the election should be prosecuted and hopefully convicted. That goes for the pawns who ransacked the Capitol on January 6, the Oath Keepers who were reportedly ready to go in with guns blazing, and the politicians who were pulling the strings at the top, whoever they might be.

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Further information on the plot to steal the election:

The Racket News
Yet another smoking gun
There was more bad news for Republicans from the January 6 commission this week. Mark Meadows, the former White House Chief of Staff, is suing the commission to try to avoid a congressional subpoena, but at least some damage has already been done as more very damning documents have come to light in materials that Meadows h…
Read more

The Texas abortion ban got another reprieve from the Supremes yesterday. In a one-sentence decision with Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissenting, the Court denied a petition by abortion providers to send the case back to a state court that had enjoined the Texas law. The Supreme Court had previously overturned the injunction. SCOTUSblog provides more details for those interested in the nuts and bolts of the case.

I don’t believe that the Court will ultimately let the law stand, but it does survive another day. The case doesn’t really address abortion but whether states can deputize citizens to police rights that courts have prevented the government from restricting. Regardless of your opinion on abortion, this is a bad law that would set a disturbing precedent. It needs to go away.


In another Supreme Court case, Donald Trump lost again. The Court ruled against The Former Guy’s effort to prevent the National Archives from turning over (more) documents to the January 6 commission. SCOTUSblog has the details here, but suffice it to say that former presidents, even those who haven’t been disgraced multiple times, cannot use executive privilege to hide the evidence of their wrongdoing.


The Tweet of the Day gives some evidence that Republicans may be finally breaking with Donald Trump. While I’m cautiously waiting to see whether this is an outlier, I wonder what was the final straw for these people if the report is accurate.

I mean, after standing by Trump for six years, two impeachments, numerous abuses of power and scandals, and an attempted coup, what could have changed their minds. I can think of two likely possibilities. The first is that Trump is out of power and no longer useful to them so there is no need to back him.

The second possibility is more disturbing. The decline seems more closely aligned with Trump’s outspokenness in favor of COVID vaccinations than anything else. As I pointed out last month, there are a few places that MAGA won’t follow Trump and, after two years of paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines, being pro-vaccination is one of them.

While I’m happy to see the GOP finally splitting from Trump, it may not be a good sign if what it signals is that Trump is no longer radical enough.


As COVID spreads once again, my wife’s parents, who are 75 and 68 years old, have tested positive. Although they have both been vaccinated and boosted, their age and the fact that they have pre-existing conditions means that they are at pretty significant risk even after getting the shots. I think that they will pull through, but we do appreciate your prayers for Bobby and Deborah.

From the Racket

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Of vaccines and mandates

 That there are numerous divisions on how to handle the pandemic has been obvious for a while. The most well-known is the division between pro-vaccine and anti-vaxxers, but a secondary one that may be even larger is the schism between those who support vaccine mandates and those who don’t. I’m unabashedly pro-mandate and I don’t believe that vaccine mandates are unconstitutional or an improper infringement on personal liberties. I’ll tell you why.

First, as I’ve pointed out many times, the Supreme Court upheld state vaccination mandates way back in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a case that everyone probably recognizes by now. The rub here is that the Court recognized the power of states to enforce mandatory vaccinations, but not the federal government.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Now let me stipulate that I think the government should work within the law to accomplish the goal of near-universal vaccinations against COVID-19. I favor mandates at the state level, but I think the current Supreme Court is correct that the federal government doesn’t have that power apart from federal employees and contractors.

With a great many state governors and legislatures not only refusing to mandate vaccinations but actively blocking pandemic mitigations, there is a case to be made that Congress should consider extending more public health power to the federal government, especially since some states have walked back public health powers to the point that it may be very difficult for future governments to fight the next pandemic.

Whatever your opinion on federal health authority, I think we can agree that such legislation isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Any discussion of extending federal public health authority is a discussion about how we should handle future pandemics. The ship has already sailed on this one.

And the ship of pandemic recovery has definitely sailed slowly. Once a leader in vaccinations, a recent Morning Consult poll found that the US has one of the highest rates of vaccine skepticism and one of the lowest rates of vaccination against COVID of any country surveyed with one exception. Only Russia fared worse on both questions, which may make the issue even more depressing.

So where do we go from here? It should be obvious that vaccines are still the way out of this pandemic. At least, they are the best way out without incurring hundreds of thousands of additional deaths and long-term health problems.

However, there are several large misconceptions that are working to undermine the vaccination push and prolonging the pandemic. One is that current COVID vaccines are ineffective against Omicron. In reality, a booster dose of the current vaccines is estimated to be 75 percent effective against infection and 88 percent effective against severe disease. A three-fourths chance of not even getting sick is nothing to sneeze at (pun intended).

As a real-world example, my vaccinated teenagers both got COVID last week. My wife (who had Delta over the summer) and I had both had our booster shots and neither of us got sick at all. Thankfully, the basic vaccinations along with their youthful age prevented my kids from having serious cases of the disease, but they still missed a week of school. My wife and I both had to isolate as well, which added to the inconvenience. (I was on a trip when they were diagnosed and had just tested negative, but I isolated when I returned home.)

A second big misconception is that COVID Omicron is mild. There is evidence that it is less severe than the Alpha and Delta variants, but “milder” is not the same as being “mild” followed by a period and the end of the sentence. The recent surge in COVID hospitalizations is proof of that.

Despite more breakthrough infections, the second year of the pandemic remains a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Everywhere you look, the probability (if not always the raw numbers) of serious illness and death is much higher among the unvaccinated than among the vaccinated. Even studies that push back on claims of protection against infection acknowledge that current vaccines are effective at preventing severe cases of COVID.

So, if vaccines remain effective, why are mandates necessary? The answer there is the same as for the past year. For one thing, it is primarily the unvaccinated who are responsible for clogging hospitals and ICUs, and when this happens it threatens the lives and health of people who were vaccinated. If you’re in a car wreck or have cancer then the availability of care is important to you, regardless of whether you are vaccinated or not. These days, the available beds may be filled with COVID patients.

A second reason is that we have already seen two major variants emerge that changed the pandemic playing field. Looking to the math and probabilities again, the basic science is that the more times a virus replicates itself, the greater the probability of mutations. The more mutations that emerge, the greater the chances will be of a new dominant strain that can evade vaccines and therapies and cause the pandemic to linger on. To avoid this possibility, the best strategy is to vaccinate the entire world to establish herd immunity and give the virus fewer places to spread.

At this point, it’s apparent that natural immunity isn’t going to do the job. We’ve already seen that people can be infected more than once with COVID-19 and that is going to continue. The same variants that make vaccine boosters necessary also undermine antibodies produced by natural infections.

There are a couple of other common arguments against vaccine mandates as well. Many people have claimed that because the COVID vaccines require boosters and are not 100 percent effective, they are suspect compared to other vaccines. This argument ignores the fact that both COVID-19 and the COVID vaccines are relatively new. When we developed other vaccines, against polio, for example, we had the benefit of studying the disease for thousands of years before we developed the vaccine. Even then, it took about 20 years to develop an effective vaccine. At this point, we’ve had about 70 years to perfect the polio vaccine so it shouldn’t be surprising that it is highly effective.

As I’ve pointed out, current COVID vaccines are very effective, but they have the disadvantage of having been designed to combat a virus that has already undergone two significant mutations. There is a second generation of COVID vaccines that will more specifically target the newer variants and hopefully provide longer-lasting antibody protection as well. Both Pfizer and Moderna have new vaccines in the works that target Omicron. Pfizer’s shot is supposed to be ready by March.

As with COVID, other easily, preventable, and nearly-eradicated diseases can come back when vaccinations wane. Measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000, but there have been American outbreaks in recent years as anti-vax outlooks took hold and people decided not to vaccinate their kids. Vaccines don’t work if people don’t get them and a resurgence of the disease can threaten even those who did get vaccinated.

If vaccine policy is to get us to herd immunity, then vaccinations have to be near-universal. A lot of people miss this point when child vaccinations are considered. Yes, it’s true that young people don’t typically get serious cases of COVID (although that isn’t to say that they never do), but it is true that children can spread the disease. Schoolchildren can be vectors of disease transmission that spread COVID around their communities. This is an important reason why children should be vaccinated, especially if other mitigation strategies are not in place in schools.

This is not unprecedented. Influenza is another disease that is primarily dangerous for seniors and people with pre-existing health problems, but we still encourage kids to get vaccinated even though (a) the flu vaccine is only about 40-60 percent effective and (b) young people rarely have serious cases of the flu. We vaccinate kids to keep them from spreading the flu around the community or from taking the flu virus home to their vulnerable grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The flu vaccine isn’t mandatory in most places, but then again the flu isn’t as deadly as COVID either.

But are the COVID vaccines safe for children? There have been claims of everything from myocarditis to infertility after COVID vaccinations, but the vaccines are safe for kids. During trials of Pfizer, the only vaccine currently approved for kids, for kids aged 5-11, “no serious adverse events related to vaccination” were reported. The rare incidences of myocarditis were both mild and temporary and occurred at a lower rate than heart problems (including myocarditis) in unvaccinated children who contract COVID-19. The claims that COVID vaccines can cause infertility or miscarriages are a complete fantasy. Compare that to the early polio vaccine which used a live virus and actually caused hundreds of kids to contract polio, yet was still widely adopted.

I can’t say that there is any perfect analogy to a previous vaccine or pandemic because what we are facing is a situation that the world has never faced before. We have pandemics, but it has been more than 100 years since we have had one that rivaled COVID-19 for its unique combination of deadliness and infectiousness. There was no vaccine for the flu until 20 years after the Spanish flu pandemic, so in 1918, there was little choice but to let the virus run its course. Today, we have better options.

Donald Trump was right on at least one thing. Considering the rapid onset of the Coronavirus pandemic from a totally unknown pathogen, the development of safe, effective vaccines in such a short time is a miracle of modern medical technology. Like American soldiers in the midst of a smallpox epidemic in the Revolutionary War, we should be clamoring for an inoculation that will protect our lives and health as well as those of our loved ones and help us return to normal.

Favoring vaccine mandates didn’t use to be a controversial position, even among Republicans. It was only the politics of COVID that suddenly made many on the right suddenly decide that not getting jabbed was a fundamental human right. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many red states have broad vaccine mandates for diseases from polio to chickenpox to tetanus to HPV.

The problem is the fake news and conspiracy theories that, as the old adage goes, travel around the world faster than the truth can get its boots on. A corollary to that adage is Brandolini’s Law, which holds that the amount of energy required to refute such bovine excrement is an order of magnitude larger than the amount required to produce it. These days there is lots of fecal matter being spewed and thanks to the internet, it travels farther and faster than ever before.

I’m generally not a proponent of government mandates, but when a highly infectious and virulent disease is on the loose and misinformation is being propagated to undermine the voluntary adoption of vaccines, mandates become necessary. This isn’t a liberal or big government proposition, rather it is one that is founded upon one of the most roles of government, that of safeguarding public health.

From the Racket

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The airlines vs. 5G

 Over the past couple of years, one of the big conspiracy theories going around was about 5G technology. Among the other conspiracy theories that 2020 spawned was the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by the introduction of 5G cellular technology. Conspiracy theorists often point to tenuously-linked news stories to claim that their theoretical plots were true after all, so it may be that some believe that they were right after all based on the emerging 5G aviation controversy.

That isn’t the case, by the way. The controversy regarding 5G and the aviation world dates back at least to November 2021 when the FAA released a special airworthiness bulletin that explained that the Radio Technical Committee for Aeronautics (RTCA) had recently published a report that determined that 5G could interfere with radio altimeters in aircraft. Note that this has nothing to do with COVID-19 and that viruses cannot be transmitted by radio waves. Rather, it is a much more mundane question of radio interference.

Photo by David Thornton

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Our story begins in March 2018 when Congress directed the FCC to investigate selling frequencies in the 3.7-4.2 GHz range to commercial wireless companies. This auction was completed in February 2021 even though the RTCA report was released in October 2020 and called for more investigation. The report found “a major risk that 5G telecommunications systems in the 3.7–3.98 GHz band will cause harmful interference to radar altimeters on all types of civil aircraft” possibly leading to “catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.”

The report further explains that radar altimeters operate in the 4.2–4.4 GHz band, which is next door to the 5G frequency bands. Because radar altimeters use very sensitive receivers, there is potential for bleedover from the 5G bands that could interfere with their operations and, as the RTCA euphemistically put it, “negatively impact their performance.”

Let me back up a bit and explain what radar altimeters do. For most phases of flight, aircraft use barometric altimeters. These are the instruments on the cockpit panel that show the aircraft’s altitude and what level they are flying at. Barometric altimeters are typically calibrated to a local atmospheric pressure setting and read the altitude above mean sea level (MSL) rather than the height above ground level (AGL).

Radar altimeters fill this gap. They are essentially a downward-looking radar that bounces a signal off the ground. This shows the pilot his height AGL on a different cockpit display.

Radar altimeters are only active at low altitudes (usually below 2,500 feet) and are not installed in most light aircraft. Instead, they are part of the more extensive avionics package in airliners and corporate jets that fly in weather conditions that include low ceilings and visibility.

Radar altimeters aren’t typically required on an average day. The rub is that when you do need a radar altimeter, it’s a pretty bad day and it needs to be accurate. Radar altimeters are required for the category II and III approaches that allow airliners to get you to your destination even when the cloud ceiling is as low as 50-100 feet AGL. When operating this close to the ground, it is vital to have accurate information about ground clearance.

The rollout of 5G in the US follows that of Europe in 2019 where there was no conflict between radar altimeters and the communications transmissions. However, there is an important difference in that European 5G uses a different set of frequencies that do not abut the frequencies set aside for aviation use. The spacing between 5G and aviation frequencies in Europe prevents the possibility of bleedover.

In response to the problem, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive in December that would require aircraft operators to require “revising the limitations section of the existing airplane/aircraft flight manual (AFM) to incorporate limitations prohibiting certain operations requiring radio altimeter data when in the presence of 5G C-Band interference as identified by Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs).” In other words, the rules for operating the aircraft will become more restrictive and limit the ability to engage in operations requiring a radar altimeter when the FAA issues warnings about 5G interference. At this point, it isn’t clear how long it will be before the AD takes full effect, but the FAA recently issued 1,400 5G NOTAMS. (And if anything could annoy pilots, it would be thousands of new NOTAMs. The NOTAM system is already unwieldy and in need of reform, but that’s another story.)

The airlines are saying that the new technology is dangerous and could cause disruptions and canceled flights. This could be especially true when the weather is at its worst and flight delays and cancellations are already adding up. A number of foreign carriers have already canceled some flights to the US out of concern.

As part of a short-term solution, AT&T and Verizon have agreed to limit the rollout of 5G near certain airports where the low-approach technology is frequently needed. The list of affected airports includes many airline hubs and major destinations. The upside here is that 5G phones will still work in areas where 5G is not available, they just might be a little slower or less clear, but airport wi-fi can be used to supplement 4G signals. It isn’t clear how long the development pause will last.

A more long-term solution is more extensive testing on radar altimeters to ensure that they are adequately protected from interference. CNN reported the FAA has already cleared two radar altimeter models that are used on about 45 percent of the US airline fleet. New radar altimeters can be designed with 5G protections in mind, but the cost of retrofitting the fleet would likely be prohibitive and take years to accomplish. The older models would probably be phased out slowly.

My opinion is that the threat from 5G is real under circumstances, but it is being overblown. In most operations, radar altimeters just aren’t that important, but on the days when airline flights are already delayed and the operation is being strained, the availability of radar altimeters can keep operations from completely shutting down.

I’m old enough to remember a similar kerfuffle about a decade ago. It wasn’t until 2013 that the FAA allowed airline passengers to keep their personal electronic devices on during takeoff and landing. By that point, I had “forgotten” to turn my phone off on many flights and had actually heard interference on communications radios several times that apparently came from mobile phones. I’ve never noticed a similar problem with radar altimeters, but then again, it’s not likely that I would since these problems could be very insidious and not as easily detected as static on a radio. And that’s the core of the problem.

In the end, this seems like a problem that could have been avoided by more stringent investigation of the 5G interference issue before allowing the frequency auction to take place. While some have argued that the pandemic is an example of the government being overly cautious, the 5G problem seems to be the opposite.

The choice between phone service and aviation safety is a difficult one to make, especially when billions of dollars are on the line for both sides. The choice would have been a lot easier if difficult decisions had been made years ago rather than on the eve of the 5G implementation.

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President Biden is making good on his promise to provide COVID test kits to any American who wants one. The tests can be ordered for no charge at www.covidtests.gov. The website says that they should ship within 7-12 days, so they should be ordered before they are needed.

The government is also distributing free N95 masks, which are effective against Omicron. The masks will be available at pharmacies and health centers starting next week. The 400 million masks will be released from the National Strategic Stockpile.


My Tweet of the Day shows Gallup’s party identification survey. The new poll shows that independents are a much larger share of the electorate than either party, both of which declined, and almost as much as both combined.

This is as it should be. Both parties are deeply flawed and corrupt. Neither deserves power or your allegiance. The fact that more and more Americans realize this is encouraging.

Now we just need a good alternative.