The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. armor heading for Europe; more money for ISIS fight; possibly more troops to Iraq; Special Ops active in Helmand; Trump’s ride; China buzzes South Korea; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Big budgets. President Barack Obama is preparing to ship a 2017 defense budget request to Congress that will include $3.4 billion to position American heavy weapons and armor — along with several thousand troops — in NATO’s Central and Eastern European countries. The move comes after years of criticism ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Big budgets. President Barack Obama is preparing to ship a 2017 defense budget request to Congress that will include $3.4 billion to position American heavy weapons and armor — along with several thousand troops — in NATO’s Central and Eastern European countries. The move comes after years of criticism that the administration was failing to stand up to Russian adventurism in the region, and would guarantee the presence of an American armored brigade along NATO’s eastern flank. The investment would represent a huge increase in funding for the European Reassurance Initiative, which was allocated $789 million in 2016. Reports also emerged late Monday that the White House will ask Congress for an increase in funding for the fight against the Islamic State, bringing the price tag to over $7 billion in 2017, roughly doubling the 2016 request.

But there’s a catch.

The money won’t be cooked into the regular defense budget request. Instead, it’ll be rolled into a supplemental wartime budget that has sucked up hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decade and a half. In 2016, that wartime budget clocked in at $58 billion, a number expected to repeat in 2017 as part of an overall $580 billion White House request to fund the Defense Department.

Have questions? This will all come up when Defense Secretary Ash Carter takes the stage at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington Tuesday morning to talk about the budget, though we’ve been advised that the speech will be less about specific numbers, than a broad look at larger shifts in spending. A senior defense official emailed that the budget will represent “a major inflection point for the Department of Defense,” that is “not about size, but rather shape.” But as we all know, size matters, particularly when it comes to budget debates with Congress.

Flashback. The moves in Europe are particularly intriguing. Last fall, the head of U.S. Army Europe sat down with FP and laid out his concerns over Poland’s “Suwalki Gap” a narrow strip of land that sits in the seam between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest and the Moscow-friendly nation of Belarus to the southeast. “If the Russians did a snap exercise [near the gap] you could see, potentially, they could close that off,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told FP.

Back to Iraq. While Europe will likely drive the day’s headlines, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said Monday that he’s drawing up a variety of proposals for accelerating the fight against the terrorist group — some of which may require more U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. Speaking by teleconference from Baghdad with reporters at the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland wouldn’t go into details about his plans, reports FP’s Paul McLeary, but his comments come days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. is “looking for opportunities to do more” in the fight. MacFarland said that not all of the options he is preparing call for more American troops, but “there’s the potential that we’ll need additional capabilities and additional forces…and we’re looking at the right mix.”

On message. The State Department has gone back to the drawing board when it comes to its often floundering efforts to curb recruiting by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, FP’s John Hudson writes in an exclusive look inside the coming changes. The new moves will shift “significant power to a single bureau at the State Department tasked with coordinating all counter-extremism efforts,” he notes, causing the bureau’s counter extremism staff to triple in size. And as always, there’ll be more money, tens of millions of dollars worth, in order to allow State to coordinate the nation’s “counter-propaganda, terrorist rehabilitation programs, aviation security, terrorist financing, detention and judicial reforms, and other terror prevention efforts.

The office, currently known as the Bureau of Counterterrorism, will become the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.”

Hear this. There’s a big hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday looking at integrating women into combat units. It all goes down at 10:00 a.m. and will feature Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Under Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps. Watch it here.

Also at 10:00 a.m., outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell will testify on the war before the House Armed Services Committee. Watch here.

Things are humming along here at SitRep HQ, but as you know, we can never get enough information, so 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.

Afghanistan

“We have the capacity to annihilate the Taliban threat. But because of the rules of engagement under the new mission, our hands are tied.” That’s the word from one American adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand province. The assessment comes in a Wall Street Journal story which notes that U.S. Special Operations Forces are being “called in more frequently” by Afghan forces to try and stop the Taliban from overrunning Helmand province.

A U.S. drone strike knocked the Islamic State’s radio station off the air, according to Voice of America. Afghan officials say an American drone hit the Voice of the Caliphate, which broadcasts radio propaganda on behalf of the Islamic State, in the town of Mamand in Nangarhar province. A Twitter account for the Islamic State’s Afghan radio station, however, said it “strongly rejects” reports that the radio station was off the air.

Syria

Russia has sent more fighter jets to Syria. Comments from Russia’s defense ministry and reporting from the Russian media point to four new Su-35 Flanker-E jets deployed to Hmeymim airbase, according to the AP. The Flanker-E is a 4.5 generation multirole air superiority fighter designed for air to air combat.

An Iranian C-130 cargo aircraft appears to have participated in an airdrop of supplies to residents and government forces under siege by the Islamic State in the town of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, according to the sharp-eyed analysts at Jane’s. The publication points to footage of a Russian-led aid drop broadcast in Russian and Iranian media in which a C-130 variant sporting an Iranian paint scheme drops cargo pallets.

Pusherman

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced Monday it arrested several Hezbollah members, charging them with drug trafficking in order to provide gun money for the Lebanese terror group’s war in neighboring Syria. In a statement, the DEA said that it had found an “intricate network of money couriers” funneling money from drug sales in Europe to the group.

Zika

The Pentagon said Monday that pregnant family members of active-duty personnel and civilian Pentagon employees assigned to areas affected by the Zika virus are being offered voluntary relocation. The U.S. Southern Command is also looking for ways to “support partner nations,” where the disease has been running rampant.

Libya

The Islamic State in Libya is throwing around cash bonuses in order to recruit poor Africans to the group, the Daily Telegraph reports. In Iraq, fighters for the Islamic State recently had to take a pay cut following U.S. airstrikes on the group’s financial infrastructure, but in Libya it’s offering $1,000 signing bonuses for recruits joining from Chad, Mali, and Sudan, according to Jamal Zubia of Libya’s General National Congress.

How many?

The U.S. won’t say specifically how many troops are involved in the war against the Islamic State, but it’s likely larger than the Pentagon has been willing to admit, according to the Daily Beast. The report says that the U.S. has at least 4,450 troops stationed in Iraq — a larger number than the 3,650-troop statistic often used by an Obama administration keen to play down the size of the U.S. commitment. When contractors and associated support personnel are included, the number of Americans involved grows by thousands more.

Yemen

al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is making gains in Yemen amidst the Saudi-led coalition’s war to oust the Houthis from power in the country. Agence France Presse reports that AQAP fighters seized the southern town of Azzan in Shabwa province. The group took Azzan virtually without any resistance.

China

Two Chinese fighter jets buzzed through the South Korean air defense identification zone on Sunday, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yonhap News reports that the Chinese jets flew near Jeju Island south of the South Korean mainland, prompting the South Korean military to put its own jets on standby. The incident comes amid growing tensions between China and South Korea as China has pushed back against the South’s plans to receive a U.S. THAAD missile defense unit in the wake of increasingly provocative acts by North Korea.

Drones

What kind of aircraft will the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched drone be? Congress has fought with the Navy over whether it should be closer to a lightly armed surveillance drone or a full-fledged unmanned stealth bomber, but officials say they’re now thinking about none of the above, preferring instead to turn the vehicle into a tanker drone. Navy officials say that they’ve decided that the fastest way to get a stealth strike capability aboard U.S. aircraft carriers would be to speed up the purchase of the F-35C and use the carrier-launched drones to haul fuel instead of bombs.

Tweet of the day

The Islamic State posted pictures of a crashed drone it claims belongs to Lebanon’s military. The aircraft in the photos bears a strong resemblance to the Aerosonde Mark 4.7 UAVs the U.S. Special Operations Command has been jointly operating with Lebanese Armed Forces.

RT @CTstudies #Syria Amaq published another video featuring the #Lebanese drone “shot down” in the western #Qalamoon area

Finally

Second-place finisher in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump, said Monday afternoon that U.S. troops riding in armored vehicles “go for a little ride” when they hit improvised explosive devices, FP’s Benjamin Soloway notes. After 15 years of war in which thousands of U.S. troops have lost their lives to roadside bombs, and thousands more have lost limbs and suffered traumatic brain injuries, it’s worth noting his comments in full. Trump said troops “go for a little ride upward, and they come down” after hitting IEDs. “Armor plated, top, bottom, all over, if a bomb goes off our wounded warriors — instead of losing their legs, their arms, worse, they’re okay.”

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

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