Situation Report: North Korea goes for it; Beijing upset over possible American missile defense system; the politics of defense; Syria keeps falling apart; building walls in the Middle East; Bergdahl is angry; 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
3-2-1. The big news over the weekend was North Korea’s long-range rocket launch which it claimed put a satellite into space. The move, which comes just weeks after the North tested a nuclear device, has rattled world leaders and added to some existing tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Almost immediately upon news of the launch, the U.S. and South Korea announced they were kicking off “formal consultations” over deploying the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea. A statement released on Saturday by U.S. Forces-Korea claimed the system “would be focused solely on North Korea and contribute to a layered missile defense that would enhance the Alliance’s existing missile defense capabilities against potential North Korean missile threats.” But Beijing isn’t so sure.
Beijing unhappy. The Chinese government has long cited concerns over the potential deployment of THAAD’s radar system to South Korea, which can penetrate deep into China. The Lockheed Martin-built THAAD is a long-range missile defense system that can knock ballistic missiles out of the sky at high altitudes, even outside the earth’s atmosphere. Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said late last year that Tokyo is considering deploying the system the bolster its Patriot missile capability.
And if you need to see what THAAD looks like in action, here’s some video.
As concerning as the North’s actions are, Ben Goodlad, an analyst at IHS Aerospace, Defence and Security, urged some caution. It’s “important to remember that this wasn’t a ballistic missile test, however the rocket motors tested during the launch could be used to form the first and second stages of any future weapon,” he said. Reports indicate that the satellite launched Sunday weighed about 440 pounds, doubling the weight of a satellite launched in a similar test in 2012.
Blame Clinton (the other one). The launch came up on the campaign trail here in the States, with Republican presidential hopefuls using it to try and secure some national security leverage. Texas Senator Ted Cruz reached back almost two decades in assigning blame for the North’s ability to launch the rocket and continuing ability to test nuclear devices, FP’s John Hudson writes. “The fact that we’re seeing the launch and we’re seeing the launch from a nuclear North Korea is a result of the failures of the first Clinton administration” for loosening sanctions against the nation, Cruz said. “What we are seeing with North Korea is foreshadowing of where we should be with Iran.”
The stories we tell ourselves. There was more Cruz news over the weekend. The Senator said he thinks that opening the military draft to women is “nuts,” calling the idea that women should be sent into combat “wrong,” and “immoral.” He cited his own two small daughters, saying they can do “anything in their heart’s desire,” but “the idea that the government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Of course, thousands of women have been in “foxholes” on the front lines of America’s wars every day since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and about 160 women have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told a Senate panel that women should be eligible for the draft. In December, the military was ordered by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to open about 225,000 combat jobs to women.
Bergdahl. The latest installment of the “Serial” podcast is out. In our ongoing look at what the show tells us about who Bowe Bergdahl is, and why he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, FP’s Paul McLeary writes that a clearer picture is beginning to form. It’s become obvious that the soldier had almost impossibly high expectations of his fellow grunts, and “had been mentally cataloging what he saw as the many slights and missteps of other soldiers – and Army leadership — since the day he left basic training.”
Morning, all. Hope the weekend was relaxing, and you learned a lot about North Korea’s rocket and satellite capabilities. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has added its voice to Saudi Arabia’s in the rather small chorus of Gulf Arab countries hypothetically willing to send ground troops to Syria. UAE foreign minister Anwar Gargash told the AP that he is “frustrated” at the slow pace of the war against the Islamic State and that the UAE would be willing to send a small number of troops to Syria to help train anti-Islamic State forces. The UAE already has ground troops fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iranian-backed militias from Iraq are not wild about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s recent pledges to send troops to Syria, threatening to “open the gates of hell” for them if they deploy there. The threat came from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supplied Iraqi militia and U.S.-designated terrorist organization which is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. The group is also active in Iraq, where it is operating as part of Baghdad’s war against the Islamic State.
The gains made by the government of Bashar al-Assad in the recent offensive around Aleppo spell trouble for the future of armed opposition to the Assad regime, analysts tell Agence France Presse. The loss of the city would deny rebels a crucial base and launchpad from Turkey into the rest of the country. Faced with Russian airpower and little means to counter it, the rebellion against the Assad regime may further radicalize into a deeper embrace of jihadist groups as the Russian and Iranian-backed coalition behind Assad tries to carve out a rump state in the populated west of Syria.
The fighting around Aleppo is also creating a massive refugee problem for Turkey as residents flee toward the border seeking shelter, Al Jazeera reports. Already, as many as 50,000 refugees are waiting on the Syrian side of the Turkish border as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledges that Turkey will let them in if they “have no other choice.” Turkish officials estimate that the bombing could force another 70,000 refugees toward the border.
The Islamic State
The Washington Post has identified another member of the Islamic State’s kidnap and murder squad, whose English accents earned them the nickname “the Beatles.” A U.S. intelligence official confirmed that Alexanda Kotey, a Londoner and convert to Islam, was a member of the group headed by Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, killed by a U.S. drone strike in November. Kotey’s upbringing in the Shepherd’s Bush section of London loosely aligns with descriptions of “Ringo,” an Islamic State fighter involved in detaining and torturing the group’s foreign hostages.
The war against the terrorists’ use of social media continues as Twitter says it has shut down over 125,000 accounts linked to the promotion of violent extremism. The company uses analysts based in Ireland to find and evaluate whether an account is promoting terrorism. Despite Twitter’s efforts against terrorism on its platform, the company said in a statement that the inherent difficulty of evaluating accounts means analysts are forced to make decisions about whether to ban someone based on “very limited information and guidance.”
The bomb that blew a hole in the side of a Somali airliner this month was concealed inside a laptop, according to CNN. Video reviewed by Somali authorities shows at two airport workers, since arrested, handling the laptop as one passes it to the other and then to the suspected bomber Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh. Borleh, the only casualty in the incident, was sucked out the hole made by the laptop bomb’s explosion. Investigators believe the al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group al Shabab may have been behind the attack.
Do fences make good neighbors? Tunisia is about to find out, as it has just finished building a wall along its border with Libya. The structure, rigged with surveillance gear from Germany and the U.S., is a response to the growing strength of the Islamic State in neighboring Libya since the chaos that followed the overthrow of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It’s also part of a growing anti-terrorism trend in the Middle East as countries from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as well as cities like Baghdad build walls, fences, or in some cases giant trenches in response to terrorism concerns.
Investigators have determined that a timing error caused by software glitches caused the breakdown of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) USS Milwaukee in December, shortly after her commissioning, according to Defense News. The clutch failed to engage as the engine switched from running on a combination of gas turbines and diesel to just disel causing it to burn out. Officials say the solution to the problem lies not in the fundamental design of the vehicle but in the fixing the software controlling the clutch to improve shifting.