SitRep: Mattis, Bannon, and the Pentagon; Trump Misleads on F-35, Terror Attacks; Chinese Ships Cruising
Pentagon Wish List; al Qaeda Raid Gone Wrong; Syrian Executions; And Lots More
Money train. It’s looking like it might be Christmas in February for the U.S. defense industry. The Pentagon has delivered a $30 billion wish list to Congress that would fund more ships, planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles, the AP reports.
And that might only be the beginning.
President Trump has already ordered the Pentagon to draft a “supplemental” budget for 2017 that would include billions more for the U.S. military on top of the $600 billion the Obama administration budgeted for. We’ll hear more about what the services say they need to function at 10:00 a.m. when military officials testify before the House Armed Services Committee on “The State of the Military.” Livestream here.
The budget battle could be a bellweather for Trump’s ambitious spending programs, and what deficit hawks within the Republican caucus think of opening up the nation’s wallet. As FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported, there are proposals floating around for a defense budget as high as $640 billion for 2018, which would bust through congressionally-mandated spending caps that Democrats — and many Republicans — are happy to keep in place. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been tasked with completing the supplemental request by March 1.
Staffing fight. The Pentagon is seriously short of high-level staffers, the result of an ongoing disagreement between the White House’s Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis over who should work in the building, sources tell SitRep.
Mattis “is not happy” about not being able to put his own staff in place, one source with knowledge of the back-and-forth says. The latest scrap involves a struggle between the two camps over who should run the Pentagon’s critical policy shop.
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy job is currently being filled on a temporary basis by Theresa Whelan, who was the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict until last month. The disagreement revolves around Mattis’ desire to appoint Mary Beth Long, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration, and the White House’s insistence that Mira Ricardel, who is running the Pentagon transition team, get the job, according to another source who asked not to be identified.
One of the issues with Long is that she signed signed an infamous “never Trump” letter published on War on the Rocks in March that called Trump “dishonest,” his foreign policies “unmoored in principle,” and concluded that Trump was “utterly unfitted to the office” of president. Long later said she regretted signing the letter, and “if I were asked to sign a letter like that again, I would be much more careful about the verbiage that related to the candidate himself,” she said.
From the top. Speaking to troops from the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command in Tampa on Monday, President Trump said he wants to provide them with “beautiful new planes and beautiful new equipment.”
But that’s not all. The president also used his first address before a military audience as a campaign rally, overtly politicizing the military in a way no president in recent memory has dared. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers, and you like me and I like you,” Trump said.
He also blasted the media, claiming without evidence that the press is ignoring terrorist attacks from Islamist terrorists. “You’ve seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.” Later, White House spokesman Sean Spicer worked to clarify Trump’s remarks, telling reporters the president believes some terrorist attacks have been “underreported.”
The White House later released a list of 78 terrorist attacks it claimed were not widely reported. The list included the attacks in Paris, Nice, San Bernardino, Brussels, and Berlin that received massive, wall-to-wall coverage in print and broadcast media.
Plane truth. For good measure, the president also mislead in his comments about the contract for the F-35 fighter plane. Trump took credit for Lockheed Martin’s recent announcement that the next 90 F-35’s would cost $728 million less than the previous group of planes delivered. Many defense analysts have pointed out that the cost was already scheduled to come down long before Trump’s election.
Set sail. Three Chinese warships took a cruise around the contested Senkaku Islands Monday, in a likely response to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ remarks over the weekend that Washington “will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands.”
China may also be testing out its ability to hit American military bases in preemptive missile strikes, according to a new piece up at War On The Rocks. Thomas Shugart reviews satellite imagery of a ballistic missile test facility in the Gobi desert and finds craters consistent with practice for striking targets that looks like American bases in the Pacific. Open source Chinese military literature China would use missiles bearing flechette sub-munitions to destroy American aircraft in hardened shelters as well as other vehicles and structures.
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Amnesty International has released a gruesome new report into mass executions carried out by the Assad regime. According to the human rights group, officials at the regime’s Saydnaya Military Prison hanged over 13,000 people between 2011 and 2015 with current executions at the facility likely still taking place. Amnesty interviewed former prisoners, guards, and judges at the prison and found the executed were condemned to death after sham trials lasting no longer than three minutes.
NBC News has learned the target of the recent special operations raid gone wrong in Yemen. Anonymous officials tell the news outlet that Navy SEALs were hunting for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Qassim al-Rimi, the number three man in the al Qaeda affiliate. Rimi released an audiotape after the raid, which resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy sailor and an eight year old girl, taunting President Trump as the “fool of the White House got slapped.” The White House has described the raid as a “successful operation” yielding valuable intelligence but video clips U.S. Central Command released as examples of the intelligence haul from the raid were later revealed to be ten year old clips already available on the Internet.
Defense hawks have long tried to roll back restrictions on the defense budget placed there by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) is expressing hope that Congress can toss aside the budget caps it put in place. Breaking Defense reports that Thornberry told reporters on Monday that there’s a “tremendous opportunity” to ditch the Budget Control Act caps preventing a more free-spending approach to defense. Thornberry cited unified Republican control of the White House and Congress, saying both Trump and Congressional Republicans are both of the same mind about increasing defense spending.
As part of that hoped-for spending increase, Rep. Thornberry also wants the U.S. to put more resources into missile defenses to counter potential threats from China, Iran, and North Korea. The congressman pointed to recent ballistic missile tests by Iran and North Korea as examples of what he said were the increasing importance of investing in anti-missile systems. Thornberry echoed recent reports that Pyongyang may be preparing a new ballistic missile test sometime in the near future.
A tighter defense budget has spelled trouble for the Navy’s fighter jet fleet. Defense News reports that scarce dollars have left half of the Navy’s jets grounded as they wait for maintenance. The problem is particularly acute among the service’s F/A-18s, two thirds of which can’t fly due to maintenance issues. Navy submarines are also facing trouble in the era of sequestration. The news outlet reports that one submarine has already lost its diving certification with five more potentially facing the same fate by the end of the year.
Prosecutors will indict a National Security Agency contractor allegedly found in possession of vast amounts of classified hacking tools, according to the Washington Post. The paper reports that the federal government will seek charges against Harold Martin, arrested in August 26, alleging that he violated the Espionage Act by taking home classified software used by the NSA to hack intelligence targets as well as plans regarding American adversaries. Martin’s lawyers argue that their client simply brought his work home with him without any malicious intent to compromise American secrets.
Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary