The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. warships in the South China Sea; Team Trump; North Korea rattles nukes; choppers for Jordan; rumble in the Arctic; story of Ukrainian hack attack; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Into the blue. The U.S. has sent aircraft carrier the USS John C. Stennis, along with a host of accompanying ships, into the disputed waters of the South China Sea Navy officials said Thursday. The carrier is being joined by two destroyers, two cruisers, and the 7th Fleet command ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Into the blue. The U.S. has sent aircraft carrier the USS John C. Stennis, along with a host of accompanying ships, into the disputed waters of the South China Sea Navy officials said Thursday. The carrier is being joined by two destroyers, two cruisers, and the 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge. The move comes amid complaints from Washington and its regional allies over Chinese deployments of advanced radar and surface-to-air- missile systems to disputed islands in the critical waterway. No word if the ships are planning to conduct any freedom of navigation exercises near some of the artificial islands that Beijing has built in the region. The Navy has sailed within 12 nautical miles of such islands twice since October, and Navy leadership has promised to do more in the coming months.

Just recently, FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson offered a solid rundown of the situation in the South China Sea that’s worth revisiting.

Money talks. As Washington and Beijing angle for position, China’s military budget continues to rise, albeit more slowly than before. Spending on the Chinese military will rise by about 7 to 8 percent this year, down from the double-digit rises in recent years. The exact numbers are expected to be revealed this weekend during the kickoff of the annual legislative session.

Hello. Elsewhere in the region, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ramped up nuclear tensions yet again, ordering his forces to be ready for nuclear strikes at any time. (Assuming, of course, that the North can even conduct nuclear strikes.) In a show of anger over new U.N. sanctions, North Korea popped off a new round of short-range missiles into the sea on Thursday. State media followed up with a report stating that “the only way for defending the sovereignty of our nation and its right to existence under the present extreme situation is to bolster up nuclear force both in quality and quantity.”

Team Trump. Did you watch the big Republican debate last night? Lost amid the insults and the shouting was the fact that frontrunner Donald Trump named Sen. Jeff Sessions as the chair of his national security team. Trump tweeted the news before the debate kicked off. Sessions sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and is chairman of its Strategic Forces subcommittee.

How and when. The long diplomatic journey to get captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl out of Taliban hands was full of fits and starts. FP’s Paul McLeary writes that the latest installment of the Serial podcast series exploring those efforts has very little from Bergdahl himself, but offers a good rundown of the years of messy peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. There are also some gruesome details about the five Taliban leaders released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl, however. One of the men, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, “was infamous for sticking his fingers into the nostrils of doomed men to push their heads back before slitting throats.”

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep. 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.

Syria

The cessation of hostilities in Syria is giving residents of Aleppo something of a breather, but the fighting is far from over. Residents told Reuters that the halt in the bombing by Russian warplanes has given them the chance to step outside and buy goods from the markets in ways unimaginable during the constant airborne assaults. But the relative good times may not last. Humanitarian organizations warn that the city may come under siege from the Assad regime as Kurdish forces, which have been accused of coordinating with Russia on strikes against rebel groups in the area, cut off the last remaining road into Aleppo.

Jordan

Jordan has just received Black Hawk helicopters from the United States in order to buttress the country’s fight against the Islamic State along its border with Syria. The U.S. handed over eight of the choppers on Thursday and another eight are set to arrive in 2017, as part of an overall military aid package including small arms and night vision equipment.

Ukraine

The hack that took down part of Ukraine’s power grid — the first attack of its kind in the world — was a professional operation, carefully planned over a period of months. Wired’s Kim Zetter reports that preparation for the attack began up to half a year before Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Attackers sent malware-laden emails targeted to employees of Ukrainian power companies, and from there managed to gain access to the equipment used to control the power supply at substations. The hackers also deafened employees to customer complaints once the lights went out by shutting down the phone lines with a telephone denial-of-service attack.

Citizens of NATO countries remain pretty skeptical of Russian foreign policy, and wish Ukraine well, but ultimately don’t want to get too involved in Kiev’s struggles with Moscow. That’s according to new polling data from the Pew Research Center on the attitudes of major NATO countries towards the main parties of the conflict in Ukraine. Only a 25 percent of NATO publics have nice things to say about Russia and half view it as a military threat to their country and its neighbors. While 70 percent support offering economic aid to Ukraine, only 41 percent are in favor of sending arms. When asked if they’d support coming to the defense of a NATO ally if it was attacked by Russia — as NATO’s Article 5 requires — 48 percent agreed.

Rumble in the Arctic

As the Arctic heats up, countries like Russia are moving in to claim energy and mineral rights and gobble up the riches underneath the melting sea lanes. The prospect of conflict in the frozen north has Arctic countries scrambling to beef up their defenses, however. It’s in this context that the U.S. will be carrying out two exercises in the Arctic, Ice Exercise 2016 and Cold Response. The former is an exercise designed to test the submarine force’s ability to operate underneath the icy waters of the Arctic. The latter is a joint NATO exercise — including several thousand U.S. troops — which has already seen U.S. Marines testing out surface-to-air missiles in live fire exercises.

The annals of “BRRRRTTTTTT…”

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) lit into Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh in a hearing on Thursday, taking him to task for his criticism of the A-10 Warthog’s effectiveness, calling them “embarrassing” and “disingenuous.” Air Force officials have been trying to retire the close air support aircraft in order to save money to fund the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — despite intense opposition in Congress. Welsh suggested that the Air Force would use F-15 fighter jets to provide close air support while retiring the A-10 and waiting for the F-35. McCain rounded on the Air Force general, saying the fact that the service is currently using the A-10 for the mission instead of the F-15 illustrates an implicit admission of its superiority as a close air support aircraft.

Welcome to the future

Pirates on the high seas are now adding hacking to their list of skills for raiding ships. At the RSA security conference this week, Verizon released a report detailing an incident in which pirates hacked the billing database of a shipping company in order to learn where and when it’s most valuable cargo would be. Company employees were astounded when, after boarding their ships, the pirates would go straight for shipping containers with specific bar codes. An investigation later revealed that the attacks, though effective, were relatively unsophisticated and easily blocked from subsequent access.

And finally…

If you’re worried about waking up one day and getting pummeled by an asteroid, relax, some nerds with lasers are on top of that. Researchers at the University of California have been working on the Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation — or De-Star — a laser which they say could be put in orbit to zap incoming space rocks and prevent them from ending all life on earth.

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

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