The Cable

SitRep: The Debate Hits ISIS, Cyber, Nukes; A Look at New Russian Tactics in Syria

Nuke Surprises, ISIS, Some Cyber, and Little Else; And Lots More

during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.  The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt.
during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt.

 

Debate in the books. One candidate has published a plan to defeat the Islamic State. One claims to have a secret plan to do the same. And On Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump hit each other for their approach to the subject.

In a wide-ranging first presidential debate of 2016, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president squared off — vaguely, and briefly — on national security issues, with ISIS taking up most of the air in the room. But there were some notable absences. Syria — where U.S. and NATO aircraft have hit tens of thousands of targets over the past two years — and Afghanistan, America’s longest war where 7,000 American troops and 5,000 NATO troops remain on the ground, were all but ignored.

On ISIS, Clinton pledged to ramp up airstrikes and launch an ”intelligence surge” to track down the group’s leaders and identify radicalized individuals in the West, while Trump kept any thoughts he might have on the fight secret, complaining again that Washington should have “kept the oil” after invading Iraq in 2003.

FP’s Molly O’Toole stayed up late so you didn’t have to, and has lots more on the debate.

One significant, of overlooked, moment came when Trump appeared to turn decades of U.S. nuclear policy on its head, saying, “I would certainly not do first strike.” If Trump ruled out the policy of reserving the right to conduct a first nuclear strike on an enemy — as President Barack Obama recently considered doing, before deciding against it — the move would represent a sea change in American policy.

Nuke spending. Trump also complained that other countries have increased their nuclear strike capabilities, while the United States has fallen behind. Defense Secretary Ash Carter actually agrees with that one. Speaking at Minot Air Force Base N.D. on Monday, Carter said that while spending billions on the U.S. nuclear triad is “not intended to stimulate competition from anyone else, we know they aren’t having that effect because the evidence is to the contrary. We didn’t build anything new for the last 25 years, but others did — including Russia, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and, for a period of time, Iran — while our allies around the world, in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO, did not.”

Russia’s big bomb. Aleppo continues to be bombarded by a continuous wave of Syrian government and Russian warplanes, flattening whole parts of rebel-held parts of the city. FP’s Paul McLeary takes a look at two new wrinkles in how Russia is waging war in the country: for the first time dropping its massive, 1,000-lb. “bunker buster” bomb on densely-populated civilian targets in Aleppo, while deploying its Su-25 Frogfoot strike plane to more closely support Syrian ground forces battling anti-regime rebels.

Washington is also increasingly worried that Arab allies from the Gulf states, frustrated by the collapse of the U.S./Moscow brokered ceasefire last week and the continuing chaos in Syria, may begin sending ground-to-air MANPADS to Syrian rebels, who would likely then aim them at Russian planes.

Good morning and 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

China

The U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments are turning up the heat on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Justice charged four Chinese citizens — Ma Xiaohong, Zhou Jianshu, Luo Chuanxu and Hong Jinhua — and Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co (DHID) , a Chinese company, with money laundering on behalf of North Korea’s Korea Kwangson Banking Corp, which the U.S. says is tied to the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Treasury followed suit by sanctioning the four individuals as well as DHID.

Japan

Adm. Tomohisa Takei, commander of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, would appreciate it if his Chinese counterparts would visit more often. Takei gave a speech on Monday in which he said Chinese and Japanese military personnel should get back in the habit of  personnel exchanges and port calls in order to reduce tensions between the two forces. The call for improved military-to-military relations was tempered with renewed criticism of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and a pledge to conduct more joint operations with the U.S. Navy.

North Korea

The U.S. is stepping up its deterrence pageantry in the face of increasingly provocative shows of force from North Korea. The latest installment included a joint naval exercise with South Korean forces off the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. The exercise, however, hit a sour note following the crash of a South Korean helicopter with three personnel on board, still missing. The U.S. Air Force has also been stepping up its muscle-flexing, showing off all three of its strategic bombers at the U.S. base on Guam in August.

Congress

On Wednesday, the Senate will vote on whether to override a veto from President Obama for the first time. At issue is whether 9/11 victims should be allowed to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over its alleged role in the attacks. The Senate passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism bill, which would allow for lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, in May, followed by the House earlier this month. President Obama vetoed the bill on the grounds that it would undermine the principle of sovereign immunity, which holds that states can’t be liable in civil or criminal court.

Iraq

Iran’s covert action arm is carrying out some low-key soft power development with a new construction project Iraq, according to the Long War Journal. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Khatam al Anbiya Construction Base says it’s planning to help expand the shrine of Hazrat Zahra in neighboring Iraq with the help of the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines (HRHS). HRHS has members of the Qods Force, which carries out Iran’s covert actions abroad, on its board, including Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and has been working on religious construction activities in Iraq since after the U.S. invasion.

Nukes

Defense Secretary Ash Carter gave his first speech on U.S. nuclear weapons on Monday and came out swinging in support of triad modernization. Analysts and critics have worried about the cost of modernization, estimated to be as much as $405 billion over the next 10 years. Carter, however, said failure to invest in new delivery systems for each leg of the triad would amount to a decision to abandon it, framing the decision as “a choice between replacing them or losing them.”

 

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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

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