Situation Report: Secret drone war in Syria; Sweden eyeing NATO membership; Carter says closing Gitmo would be “nice;” anthrax scandal grows; China’s killer monkeys; the U.S. Navy’s election season complaints; and lots more
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
The friendly skies. The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have teamed up to fly armed drones over Syria, several U.S. officials confirmed to the Washington Post’s Greg Miller. Despite highly-touted plans for the Obama administration to scale back the amount of direct-strike work the CIA performs on the battlefield, the plan in Syria puts the CIA in the lead on the “find and fix” mission, and JSOC drones put steel on target. While the strikes have only been used a “handful” of time in Syria, the genie may be out of the bottle as U.S. officials continue to search for the most effective way to hunt and kill individual terrorists who exist in the shadows. “Officials said the cooperation between the CIA and JSOC in Syria is increasingly viewed as a model that could be employed in future conflicts,” Miller writes.
The Swedes are coming! Moscow likely won’t be happy to hear this, but public opinion and some formerly skeptical politicians in Stockholm are seriously considering hitching their wagon to NATO. Sweden has had a long, proud history of neutrality when it comes to tensions between the West and Russia, but President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine, and frayed nerves in the Baltics over what might come next, is leading to some interesting changes in Swedish opinion about its nonaligned status.
In an opinion article in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, a group of leaders from the Swedish Center Party wrote “we lack the ability to defend ourselves” if Russian forces attacked. In recent months, Russian military aircraft have violated Swedish airspace and submarines have been reported stalking the country’s coastline. The Center Party leaders continued, “NATO is very clear about the fact that Sweden cannot expect military support if we are not full members of the organization. We can no longer close our eyes to that.”
Lock the door. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, might not close after all, despite President Barack Obama’s insistence that it be closed before he leaves office. “It would be a nice thing to do and an important thing to do, if we can do it,” Carter said during an online Q&A with troops. “But we have to be realistic about the people who are in Guantanamo Bay. They’re there for a reason.”
There are still 116 prisoners being held at the prison, 52 of which are eligible for release, meaning a place needs to be found for those detainees before Gitmo can shutter its doors. The Defense Department has already sent a team to look into housing them at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, the Pentagon’s only maximum security prison. A visit to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C. is also planned for Wednesday and Thursday this week. But the work is slow going. There is still no timeline for visiting other locations, and the governors of Kansas and South Carolina have pointedly said that they will not allow the detainees to be housed in their states. “If they’re detained at Guantanamo Bay, fine,” Carter said. “I would prefer to find a different place for them.”
Anthrax update. Do you remember the big scare this spring after it was discovered that a U.S. Army lab had inadvertently sent shipments of live anthrax spores to a small number of military and commercial labs? Well, that number has now quietly grown to 194 labs in nine countries and all 50 U.S. states, along with the Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. No one has been infected by the spores, however.
While all of the shipments — which spanned a decade — came from the Dugway Proving Ground, so far no one there has been held accountable. A July report about the scandal found that the issue is “an institutional problem at [Dugway] and does not necessarily reflect on any one individual.” But the Army has announced that it is opening an investigation “to determine whether there were any failures of leadership” at the facility.
Good morning, friends of SitRep! Hopefully that morning coffee got things going and you’re firing on all cylinders for your trip through the national security noteworthies with us. As always, please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus isn’t happy about the narrative being pushed by the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls which maintains that the U.S.Navy isn’t as capable as it once was. Campaign trail complaints by a variety of candidates claiming that the Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1917 ignore the fact that the Navy is vastly more capable now than it was then, Mabus tells Politico. “That’s pretty irrelevant. We also have fewer telegraph machines than we did in World War I and we seem to be doing fine without that,” Mabus quipped. “Look at the capability. Look at the missions that we do.”
Need some more? Bryan McGrath, assistant director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, breaks down the numbers debate over at War on the Rocks.
China’s parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is a big deal for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which plans to show off some new military kit in the procession. The guest list for the parade is undergoing some diplomatic red carpet scrutiny over which countries are sending high level representatives and which are sending lower ranking emissaries or skipping out altogether, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. and major European countries have mostly opted to send lesser officials. The most notable absence, however, is from North Korea, whose provocative actions lately have strained its traditionally warm relations with China.
As part of the parade prep, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is trying to make sure no birds spoil the show by flying into the engines of planes slated for flyovers. The New York Times reports that the service has established a crack unit of macaque monkeys to take care of the avian threat, having trained them to scurry up trees and destroy birds nests at a nearby air base in advance of the event.
The Islamic State may have launched homemade rockets containing chemical weapons against the town of Marea, near Aleppo, according to The Daily Telegraph. Locals say up to 20 people were sickened and had blisters after breathing fumes from the attacks. An image circulating on social media purports to show one of the rockets lying on the ground with a black substance leaking out of it.
Vice has gotten hands on copies of the FBI’s correspondence with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) discussing Samir Khan, an American citizen who was killed alongside the radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. The correspondence raises questions over the responsibilities and boundaries between the FBI, which is a law enforcement agency, and JSOC, a military organization which participated in the drone strike. FBI reports obtained by Vice also show that the bureau received tips about Khan’s impending travel to Yemen.
The Department of “Pew!”
Anti-drone weapons are all the rage lately, with plenty of ideas being put forward on how to blast flying ‘bots out of sky. Boeing’s latest entry into the genre involves is the Compact Laser Weapons System, a mobile 2-kilowatt laser designed to melt drones in midair. Check out DefenseTech for a video of the company unleashing the laser on a drone during a recent exercise.
Ice Ice, Baby
As part of President Obama’s trip to Alaska, the Obama administration is pledging to push for more ice-breaking ships for the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has been asking for more icebreakers for years. Experts and the Coast Guard say the ships are necessary to monitor changes in the Arctic as a result of climate change, which has opened up new sea lanes, new energy and mineral resources, and prompted new territorial claims and increased activity in the region from Russia.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) lost a drone over territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on Monday. The OSCE’s drones have faced a number of problems flying over rebel-held territory, occasionally being subjected to “military-grade GPS jamming.” In this case, OSCE representatives traveled to the last known location of the drone before operators lost contact with the vehicle and noticed a burnt patch of ground, but were prevented from investigating further by pro-Russian militants.
North Korea would very much appreciate it if South Korea would stop mentioning their pseudo apology for injuring South Korean troops with land mines last month. The two countries agreed to ease tensions along the border after the incident, with South Korea getting an expression of regret from the North in exchange for an end to propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ. But Pyongyang is none too happy about how the South has taken what they’re claiming amounts to a victory lap over the statement and climbdown, calling on leaders in Seoul to be “discreet in words and deeds.”
Somalia’s Al-Shabab Islamist terrorist group briefly took control of an African Union (AU) base south west of Mogadishu, killing 70 AU troops in the attack, the BBC reports. The group launched the attack starting with a suicide vehicle bomb. AU sources tell the BBC that they have since taken back the base from Shabab.