- 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., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Here comes Raqqa. Few in the military likes to put a time frame on operations. Until the boss does. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NBC News Wednesday that the U.S,-backed assault on Raqqa “starts in the next few weeks,” and the coming attacks by Kurdish and Syrian Arab militia fighters are all part of a larger plan that has made Mosul the U.S.-led coalition’s first priority, but has been designed to squeeze ISIS by hitting both cities almost simultaneously. Speaking in Paris after a meeting in Paris with NATO allies to discuss the ISIS fight, Carter added, “it’s been long a part of our plan that the Mosul operation would kick off when it did. This was a plan that goes back many months now and that Raqqa would follow soon behind.”
ISIS plotting against West. Just hours before Carter’s announcement, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American military commander in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon that there was “sense of urgency” about hitting the Islamic State’s de facto capital, as the group was plotting unspecified attacks on the West from the city. “We know they’re up to something, and it’s an external plot,” the general said while speaking from his headquarters in Baghdad. “We don’t know exactly where” they intend to strike, he added, and “we don’t know exactly when.”
So, it’s on. But here’s the problem. U.S. allies on the ground in Syria are looking to find and train several hundred more Arab fighters from the local population to help in the assault, since the most accomplished fighters in the area — the Kurds — won’t be welcomed inside the city.
Relying on the Kurds, of course, is a non-starter for Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG a terrorist organization. Ankara recently sent special operations forces and a force of its own Syrian Arab militiamen into northern Syria to push ISIS and the Kurds off its border, and according to a speech delivered by President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, is planning to attack the U.S.-backed Kurds around the town of Manbij before moving on Raqqa. Erdogan said he informed U.S. President Barack Obama about his plans for the operation in a telephone call on Wednesday, something not included in a White House readout of the call.
Russian ships making a go. Russia says it won’t be refueling its aircraft carrier in Spain after all following an outcry in Europe against Madrid’s support to the Russian war in Syria. The Admiral Kuznetsov, the smokey, rusty aircraft carrier with the little engine that maybe can’t, has been making its way to Syria for what’s expected to be an uptick in airstrikes on Aleppo.
The proposed refueling visit raised the ire of British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who said he’d be “extremely concerned” to see a NATO country lending a hand to the Russian effort in Syria. Russian officials said Thursday that the Kuznetsov and other Russian ships that recently entered the Mediterranean won’t target Syria, of course.
Rumble in the Baltic. If you need another sign of the poisonous relationship between Russia and NATO, Sweden, and Finland, look no further than the latest reports about Russia strengthening its Baltic Fleet. According to Reuters, Russian media is reporting that two Russian Buyan-M missile corvettes armed with nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles are headed to join the Baltic Fleet as part of a new unit based in Kaliningrad. Russia already rattled nerves among NATO countries by sending OTR-21 Tochka nuclear-capable short range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad earlier this month.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has a great rundown of the Russian ships in question and their capabilities, concluding, “the Kuznetsov group is making bigger waves, and has the potential to have a greater military impact in the Mediterranean. But the two small corvettes, with their modern, nuclear-capable missiles, may yet have an impact out of proportion to their size in the Baltic.”
Boots on the gravel. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris had a chance to visit U.S. troops stationed at the Q West base just outside of Mosul, and sends back a report of what life is like there. If you spent any time at an American forward operating base in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past 15 years, it seems pretty similar, save for the lack of an ice cream station in the chow hall.
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
U.S. expands Africa drone ops
Washington has “secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa, deploying unmanned aircraft and U.S. military personnel to a facility in Tunisia to conduct spy missions in neighboring Libya,” the Washington Post’s Adam Entous and Missy Ryan report. The unarmed Reaper drones started flying out of the base in June and have played a role in the U.S. air strikes against ISIS in Libya. “The Obama administration pressed for access to the Tunisian base as part of a security strategy for the broader Middle East that calls for placing drones and small Special Operations teams at a number of facilities within striking distance of militants who could pose a threat to the West.”
The People’s Liberation Army is serious about modernization and so this month it put on a running of the unmanned vehicles for the Overcoming Obstacle 2016 challenge. PopSci reports that the event, similar to DARPA’s Grand Challenge, pitted five categories of unmanned ground vehicles against each other to see which one performs the best. The contest featured unmanned cars, all-terrain vehicles, tracked SWAT-bots, cargo vehicles, and creepy quadrupeds resembling Boston Dynamics’ iconic BigDog robot.
Drones of the caliphate
The Pentagon is preparing its forces in Iraq to deal with the threat of Islamic State drones, Bloomberg reports. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend briefed reporters on the threat, saying that the jihadist group uses the small unmanned systems more for reconnaissance and improving artillery accuracy than as explosive-laden homebrew missiles. Townsend said the suicide drones so far “haven’t had a great effect,” but the Pentagon nonetheless expects Islamic State fighters to keep trying. Commanders have issued new procedures for dealing with the threat of explosive drones and the Air Force revealed that it’s now using electronic warfare systems in Iraq to down Islamic State drones.
Meanwhile, the war against the Islamic State’s erstwhile parent group, al Qaeda, continues in Afghanistan. A drone strike in Kunar province killed two al-Qaeda officials, Nayef Salam Muhammad Ujaym al-Hababi and Balal al-Utabi. Defense officials say that al-Hababi, reportedly al Qaeda’s top commander in Afghanistan, was involved in planning terrorist attacks in Europe alongside his deputy, al-Utabi. The two men were also involved in fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan are up pretty significantly this year over 2015, already hitting the 700 mark, whereas all of last year saw 500 American strikes. Reuters reports that between June and late October, about 240 of the strikes came under rules approved by Obama in June allowing U.S. forces to more actively support Afghan troops fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and 190 came against Islamic State.
The Islamic State in Afghanistan has killed 30 civilians, some of them children, which the group kidnapped as they were gathering firewood in Ghor province, according to the BBC. Islamic State fighters executed the captives after a failed attempt by Afghan police to free the prisoners, which resulted in death of a commander for the jihadist group.
Business of defense
How did Northrop Grumman land the multi-billion dollar contract to build the Air Force’s stealth B-21 bomber? Its bid came pretty cheap, FlightGlobal reports. Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch told reporters on Wednesday that the designs offered by both Northrop and the Boeing-Lockheed tag team met the requirements for the bomber just fine. In a protest to the contract award, Boeing complained that Northrop’s plan to use low skill, low-paid workers to work on the program would put the it in jeopardy and offer an unfair cost advantage but the Government Accountability Office disagreed.
Photo Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images