SitRep: GOP Senator: Trump Budget “Dead on Arrival,” Presidential Speech Wrapup; Turkey Threatens U.S. Allies in Syria
- 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.
On the stump. President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union speech Monday evening, and while it was a measured address that stuck to the populist themes he advocated during the election, it broke very little new ground on domestic or foreign policy.
FP’s Dan De Luce writes, “the inward-looking speech did not lay out any foreign policy vision, and unlike his predecessors, he did not reaffirm America’s role as leader of the free world. Trump’s hour-long speech contained no reference to Russia’s hacking of the U.S. election, its invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, China’s actions in the South China Sea, or the thousands of U.S. troops deployed in wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.”
Credit. The president repeated the falsehood that his efforts have brought the cost of the F-35 fighter down by hundreds of millions of dollars, and he ad libbed a line that appeared to suggest European allies are paying the U.S. to belong to the alliance. Trump said that due to his criticisms that alliance members are not bearing their share of the financial burden, “I can tell you that the money is pouring in. Very nice.” The German foreign minister suggested the opposite during remarks to reporters while traveling in Estonia on Wednesday, however.
Trump budget DOA? That’s what influential Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday, throwing cold water on the president’s goal of gutting the State Department and foreign aid budgets to fund his proposed defense spending increases. “A budget this lean would put those who serve overseas for the State Department at risk,” Graham told NBC News. “It’s not going to happen…It would be a disaster.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Tweeted that “Foreign Aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget & critical to our national security.”
Blame game. The morning of his first major address to Congress, Trump deflected any personal blame for authorizing a raid by Navy SEALs on an al Qaeda compound in Yemen last month, putting the onus completely on the military. The mission, which led to the death of a SEAL — and likely killed civilians, according to local reports — has sparked controversy. “This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump told Fox News.
“This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do. And they came to see me. They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected.” But, he said, “they lost Ryan,” referring to Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens. An unnamed U.S. defense official told Reuters that U.S. forces gained key intel from the raid, including its explosives manufacturing, targeting, training and recruitment practices.
Mosul assault grinds on. Iraqi forces from the 9th Division look to have taken the last road leading out of the western half of the city, cutting off ISIS fighters from Tal Afar and escape to Syria. In a related story, the New York Times has a touching story and photos by Rukmini Callimachi about how Iraqi forces assisted a family fleeing the fighting that’s worth a look.
More trouble in Syria. Turkish forces are threatening to move on the Syrian city of Manbij, which Kurdish forces took from ISIS late last year. FP’s Paul McLeary visited an area close to the city last week, and found that the Arab and Kurdish forces being trained by a group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers there are more worried about Turkish forces and their proxies than ISIS. The Institute for the Study of War’s Chris Kozak writes Wednesday that “an open conflict will likely erupt imminently between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Manbij in Northern Syria,” due to Turkish concerns that the Kurds will threaten Turkey. “The fight for Manbij will derail the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS and create opportunities for al Qaeda to expand further in Syria.” Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Votel told FP much the same thing in an interview this week.
Egypt partnership. On a visit to Egypt last week, Votel told local television reporters that the United States is looking to resume a major military exercise with Egypt that President Barack Obama canceled in 2013 to protest the killings of civilian protesters, writes the New York Times’ Michael Gordon and Declan Walsh. “General Votel’s comments were made shortly after he met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and top Egyptian military and Defense Ministry officials. It also comes amid a general warming of relations between Mr. Sisi and President Trump, who has hailed the Egyptian president as a ‘fantastic guy.’”
The forgotten war. Afghan security forces appear to have beaten back two suicide attacks on a police station and the country’s intelligence agency Wednesday. At least one person was killed and 39 wounded in the assaults. “The first attacker blew up his explosives-laden vehicle in front of the Kabul Military School located on the western side of the Afghan capital. Another suicide bomber on foot blew himself up near an Afghan spy agency building on the eastern side, said Najib Danish, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry,” according to the latest report.
Meet the new ban, not the same as the old ban. According to the AP’s Matt Lee and Vivian Salama, a new version of the White House’s immigration order “will remove Iraq from the list of countries whose citizens face a temporary U.S. travel ban,” bowing to pressure from the Pentagon and State Department. Citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – stay on the 90-day travel ban list, though the document no longer singles out Syrian refugees for an indefinite ban, instead including them as part of a general, 120-day suspension of new refugee admissions.
Revolving Door Surprise. If you hang around Washington long enough, you may witness your friends climb to surprising heights. But on Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz discovered the same is true for some of your biggest nemeses. The Utah Republican’s longtime sparring partner R.C. Hammond, who confronted Chaffetz in a series of withering YouTube videos during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, is now Rex Tillerson’s senior communications guru at the State Department. But no one sent the memo to Chaffez who was confronted with the news by FP’s John Hudson ahead of Trump’s speech. “I hadn’t heard that,” Chaffetz said with a grin that quickly faded away. After an awkward pause, Chaffetz said “I don’t have anything personally against him, we duked it out in a campaign four years ago, but…” and then Chaffetz appeared lost for words.
Hammond, a former spokesman for Newt Gingrich, relished poking fun at Chaffetz on the campaign trail when the Utah Republican appeared at events to support Gingrich’s rival Mitt Romney for the party’s nomination. When asked if Chaffetz had any advice for dealing with Hammond, he grinned: “You guys will have to figure that out all by yourselves.”
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Everything must go! China’s new strike-capable drone is a hit with customers. Jane’s reports that the Chinese government is saying the Wing Loong II has yielded “biggest overseas purchase order in the history of Chinese [UAV] foreign military sales.” China has already become a popular exporter of armed drones where the U.S. refuses to sell, making Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates members of the once-exclusive club of nations with the capability to carry out drone strikes. The Wing Loong II, which looks like a knockoff American MQ-9 Reaper drone, is an upgrade over the Wing Loong I, which resembles an MQ-1 Predator, and can carry out new missions like electronic warfare.
Suicide factory. A new study on the Islamic State’s use of suicide bombers argues that the group has “industrialised the concept of martyrdom.” The report by Charlie Winter of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism studied 923 suicide attacks carried out by the terrorist group between 2014 and 2015, using propaganda releases drawn from the process of claiming the attacks. The data shows that only a fifth of suicide bombers were foreign-born, with Iraqis making up two thirds of attackers. The number of attacks at any given time period varied widely, but Winter to concluded that the group deployed bombers in a calculated manner rather than haphazardly.
They see me rolling. Russia’s armed, unmanned ground vehicle Uran-9 has been spotted in Syria.
COIN Air. The Air Force is looking at buying up some light attack planes as an interim measure while it waits on the F-35’s availability. The Washington Post reports that at least two planes, the Embraer A-29 and the Beechcraft’s AT-6, are under consideration for the role. The idea of the Air Force buying a commercially-available light-attack aircraft for use in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions has come up before, meeting with resistance from Air Force officials who deemed it redundant. The Navy briefly experimented with the concept, bringing Vietnam-vintage OV-10 Broncos out of retirement for use against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Lag. The Army’s upgrades to its armored vehicle fleet are moving at an achingly glacial pace, according to the service’s program executive officer for ground combat systems. Defense News reports that Maj. Gen. David Bassett told an audience at the Lexington Institute that the current rate of investment in vehicle it will take 30 years before every vehicle receives an upgrade. Bassett said the Army is increasingly looking at affordable technology upgrades that can be added relatively quickly in order to improve the service’s armored vehicle capabilities.
Early bird special. Mix some metamucil into that JP-8 and pony up for a gold watch because the Air Force will retire the iconic MQ-1 Predator drone next year. Defense Tech reports that the 150 Predator drones will retire in 2018, with flights halting in July as the Air Force transitions to larger, more capable MQ-9 Reaper drones. In the meantime, the service has begun standing up new Reaper units in Florida and California.
Regulations. The Navy claims it punished a SEAL unit for flying a partisan Trump campaign flag on a military vehicle. Stars and Stripes reports that a spokeswoman says an unspecified number of sailors from Naval Special Warfare Group received “administrative corrective measures” for “violat[ing] the spirit and intent of applicable DoD regulations concerning the flying of flags and the apparent endorsement of political activities.” What those measures comprised remains unknown.
Dossier. The FBI wanted to pay a retired British spy to keep feeding the bureau with intelligence on Russia. The Washington Post reports that former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele was about to reach a deal with the FBI in October 2016 but the publication of a dossier he produced killed the deal. The dossier contained allegations that Russian intelligence had compromising material on then-candidate Trump as well as claims about Russian interference in the election and contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian spies. While much of the material in the dossier concerning Trump remains lurid and unproven, spies say they’ve been able to confirm some claims in it about communications between foreign nationals.
John Hudson contributed to this report.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy