The Cable

Situation Report: Obama’s last shot; Army nominee calls it quits; Russia accused of bombing U.S.-backed Syrian aid agency; Navy leader comes under fire for gender-neutral plans; NATO had a busy 2015; North Korea frays nerves; Bergdahl goes to court; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Last chance. When President Barack Obama steps up to the podium Tuesday night to deliver the last State of the Union address of his presidency, he’ll undoubtedly use the occasion to mount of defense of his legacy. But he’ll also have to look forward, since he’s leaving the next ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Last chance. When President Barack Obama steps up to the podium Tuesday night to deliver the last State of the Union address of his presidency, he’ll undoubtedly use the occasion to mount of defense of his legacy. But he’ll also have to look forward, since he’s leaving the next president with a host of thorny issues including frayed relations with Middle East allies, a resurgent Russia, and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  FP’s Dan De Luce, John Hudson and Lara Jakes write up a list of the foreign policy issues Obama won’t be able to avoid, and a few he’s likely to ignore, including the state of U.S./Israeli relations.

Enough is enough. After four months of waiting for the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing on his nomination to be the next secretary of the Army, odds are Eric Fanning has stopped waiting by the phone. In fact, he stepped down from his role as acting secretary on Monday, FP’s Paul McLeary reports, and is handing things off to his deputy who managed to be confirmed late last month. The problem? In many ways, it’s Guantanamo Bay.

Republicans in Congress are furious over Obama’s plans to use his executive authority to close the detention facility and transfer dozens of detainees to prisons in the U.S. In November, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) placed a hold on Fanning’s confirmation to protest the potential transfer of prisoners. And while aides to Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) claim he wants to schedule a hearing for Fanning soon, the senator’s Senate Armed Services Committee has held some 24 public hearings since Fanning was nominated in September, and still Fanning waits. Pentagon officials on Monday said he will take another job in the office of the secretary of defense while continuing to wait for his hearing on the Hill. If it ever comes.

Target list. Moscow has come under plenty of criticism over the past several months for hitting targets in Syria including hospitals and civilian neighborhoods not affiliated in any way with the Islamic State. And now Moscow is being accused of bombing a humanitarian field office in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, FP’s John Hudson reported first on Monday.

In a statement to FP, the Syrian Emergency Task Force said the strike in Idlib “completely destroyed” the facility and equipment. The staff — which host civil society workshops, distributes U.S. humanitarian aid, and documents atrocities — was not present during the incident, and no one was killed, Hudson writes.

Unfriend. Lots of people are upset with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus for his comments on how the Marine Corps has lagged in becoming more gender-neutral in its training and culture. But few have been as strident as Rep. Duncan Hunter, (R.-Calif.), who said last week that Mabus is “a greater threat to the Marine Corps than ISIS” for forcing the Corps to integrate women into infantry positions.

A letter Hunter sent to Defense Secretary Ash Carter Monday continues to hammer away at Mabus, stating that the secretary “continues to make a compelling case for the Marine Corps to be an autonomous military department with its own civilian leadership.” At issue is a Jan. 1 memo Mabus sent to Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, ordering him to submit a plan by Jan. 15 to integrate both enlisted basic training and officer candidate school.

Hunter said Mabus’s memo “surprised” Marine leadership, and the congressman writes, “the fact that the Marine Corps was not even consulted on such a change is disgraceful and disrespectful, and the action of Secretary Mabus, especially knowing he has never served in the Marine Corps, amount to the desecration of holy ground — which to any Marine is recruit training.”

Hearing day. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will walk into an Army courtroom Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C. for a pre-trial hearing in advance of full court martial proceedings set for Aug. 8 – 19. Bergdahl, who walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 and was promptly captured by the Taliban, is finding new notoriety as the subject of the “Serial” podcast, which features him telling the story of his five years of torture and confinement. The latest episode comes out on Thursday.

We’re well into the new year now, and so far 2016 has been a pretty busy one. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Iraq

The U.S. is taking the fight against the Islamic State’s budget to directly to the source by literally bombing piles of its money. On Sunday, American warplanes targeted a cash distribution center used by the group near Mosul, destroying “millions” of dollars worth of cash, according to CNN. Defense officials reportedly considered the target risky, given its proximity to civilians, but green lit the strike anyway given its importance.

Afghanistan

The Taliban has reportedly freed a Canadian man it has been holding captive for over five years. The group took Colin Rutherford after he traveled to Afghanistan for vacation in 2010, releasing a proof of life video a year later. Now the CBC reports that Rutherford was picked up by a helicopter in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province and flown to safety while fighter jets provided air cover overhead. Canadian officials have thus far refused to delve into the specifics about the circumstances of Rutherford’s release.

NATO

NATO had a very busy 2015 intercepting Russian warplanes flying over or near its borders, according to data released by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense. UPI reports that NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft violating the airspace of Baltic countries 160 times in 2015, up from 140 in 2014.

Russia

Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has asked Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense industry, to consider a request for Russian arms. Rogozin made no firm promises to Vucic, but Vucic has spoken of his concern that Croatia, which Serbia fought in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, could target Serbia with its weapons.

Head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa has some “very serious” concerns over buildups in Russian missile defense capabilities that threaten NATO’s ability to fly over parts of Europe,  Gen. Frank Gorenc told the New York Times’ editorial board. He said that Russian systems in the Baltics, the Crimean Peninsula, and in Syria are a major area of concern for U.S. and NATO officials. FP readers already know all about the issue, of course.

China

China is pushing back against criticism from Vietnam and others over its aircraft landing on a manmade island on Fiery Cross reef, where both countries have maritime territorial claims, according to the Wall Street Journal. Vietnam had issued a complaint to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, saying that China did not notify Vietnamese air traffic controllers of the flights and thus presented a safety risk. But Chinese officials brushed aside Vietnam’s complaints, claiming that China had notified Vietnam in advance of the landings.

North Korea

North Korea has put a purported American prisoner on display and filed espionage charges against him. CNN interviewed Kim Dong Chul, who describes himself as a naturalized American citizen, in North Korea. Kim told the cable news channel that he had been working at a special economic zone in North Korea near the Chinese border since 2001. Under the supervision of North Korean authorities holding him, Kim said he had spied for “conservative elements” in South Korea since 2009.

Navy

Which U.S. Navy ship will be first in line to test out the Navy’s new rail gun and when will that rail gun-toting ship first put to sea? Good questions. Defense News reports that thus far the two likeliest candidates for the rail gun have been the DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer and, more recently, the expeditionary fast transport ship (EPF), formerly the “joint high speed vessel.” While a 2016 EPF rail gun demonstration is still an official priority, officials are saying they’re not quite sure of either the platform or the date will hold, suggesting the date may slip to 2017.

Business of defense

As the Air Force continues to have trouble getting enough drone pilots to fill its needs, the private sector drone pilot training business has become a lucrative gig. The Canada-based CAE has been making a mint lately training up pilots for the in-demand Reaper and Predator drones, according to National Defense Magazine, expanding its Predator training program from a $20 million contract into a $30 million one next year. Even the Army is looking to the private sector for unmanned skills, sending CAE a $200 million contract to build a training facility for drone pilots.

Finally…

On a lighter note comes this deeply wonky email subject line from our friends over at Aviation Week magazine, sent out Tuesday morning to promote their daily digest: “Can JSF or LRS-B replace F-15E?” Ummm…yes? Or maybe no? IDK.

Think tanked

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is expanding its international footprint with the creation of Carnegie India in New Delhi, India in 2016. C. Raja Mohan, a nonresident senior associate, will serve as founding director of Carnegie India, which will be the organization’s sixth international center.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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