The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Strikes Pound Yemen Under New Plan; Pentagon Looking at Somalia; Mattis, White House Lock Horns

ISIS and Iraq in Drone War; McMaster to the Hill; Trump’s Budget Wishlist; And Lots More

TOPSHOT - Yemeni men check the site of an air raid that hit a funeral reception in the Arhab district, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, on February 16, 2017.
Eight women and a child were killed and at least 10 other women were wounded. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Yemeni men check the site of an air raid that hit a funeral reception in the Arhab district, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, on February 16, 2017. Eight women and a child were killed and at least 10 other women were wounded. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Yemen, again. The United States launched a blistering attack on al Qaeda in Yemen on Thursday, launching 25 airstrikes under a new set of authorities the military has been given “to conduct intensified air operations” in the country, according to the Washington Post.

The full parameters of what U.S. forces are now allowed to do in Yemen is unclear, but Pentagon officials said that U.S. Special Operations Forces have been going in and out of the country as needed. Contrary to some reports, the officials claimed, no American ground action went down during the strikes. On Friday, new reports alleged that Apache helicopters and aircraft launched another series of attacks in Yemen, accompanied by what was thought to be U.S. forces on the ground battling al Qaeda elements. The airstrikes were confirmed to SitRep by a U.S. Defense official.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told the New York Times that the new authorities are more like “a philosophy more than a change in policy,” however.

From the top. Speaking with FP’s Paul McLeary earlier this week on the way home from a trip to the Middle East, commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel said that the situation in Yemen is fraught with complexity, but al Qaeda remains the primary target. The Islamic State branch in the country “is not a particularly strong one,” he said. “It’s in a very localized area, but they’re near al Qaeda, and they’ve potentially been collaborating as well.”

Last month, FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary wrote that Yemen would likely emerge as an early testing ground for President Donald Trump’s foreign policy ambitions, particularly when it comes to checking Iranian ambitions in the the region.

Talk, and action. The latest airstrikes indicate that president Trump, despite public criticism of U.S. military action abroad, is willing to commit forces to the fight against both al Qaeda and ISIS. The new authorities to operate in an “area of active hostility” usually allows the military “to launch strikes without a more lengthy approval process managed by the White House,” the Post explains. “It is similar to the authority the U.S. military was granted for the Libyan city of Sirte, where it conducted a multi-month air campaign against the Islamic State last year.”

The assault by Navy SEALs last month on an al Qaeda compound in Yemen that resulted in the death of one commando has apparently led to some leads, CNN reports, and U.S. intel officials are attempting to track down “hundreds” of names swept up in the intel haul.

Same story. Elsewhere, Pentagon officials, alarmed by the increase of attacks by the al Shabab terrorist group in Somalia, are asking the White House “to expand the military’s efforts to battle the al Qaida-linked group,” the AP reports. “Recommendations sent to the White House would allow U.S special forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army and give the U.S. military greater flexibility to launch more pre-emptive airstrikes.”

Promises. President Trump vowed to spend tens of billions more on the Navy in the coming years, increasing the number of aircraft carriers to twelve during a visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Va. “I just spoke with Navy and industry leaders and have discussed my plan to undertake a major expansion of our entire Navy fleet, including having the 12-carrier Navy we need,” Trump told a group of sailors and shipyard workers aboard the ship, which is still being completed. The Navy currently has ten carriers, which is nine more than any other country in the world.

The president repeated his pledge to launch “one of the largest defense spending increases in history,” a generous interpretation of his call for $50 billion more for defense in the 2018 budget. Budget guru Todd Harrison of CSIS Tweeted a chart showing that the proposed Trump increase — which faces dim prospects on Capitol Hill — showing 10 higher increases since 1977.

Coasties up in arms. One place where those dollars may not fall is on the U.S. Coast Guard. The sea service may get hit with a 10 percent budget decrease under the White House plan, and one Republican lawmaker is warning that those cuts could cripple the under-resourced and overstretched Coast Guard’s efforts to protect 95,000 miles of American coastline, writes FP Robbie Gramer.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to the White House Thursday saying “it’s nonsensical to pursue a policy of rebuilding the Armed Forces while proposing large reductions to the U.S. Coast Guard budget. Cutting the Coast Guard’s budget would “serve to the detriment of U.S. national security and create exposures that will most certainly be exploited by transnational criminal networks and other dangerous actors,” he wrote.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Appearances. President Trump’s new national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, will appear in a closed session before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) for a confirmation hearing next week, Defense News reports. National security advisors don’t require Senate confirmation in general but McMaster’s status as an active duty general officer means he needs a Senate sign-off to take on the new job. The widely-respected McMaster is expected to sail through confirmation and SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is already framing the hearing as more of a get-to-know-you session and less of a Congressional grilling.

Army. The vacant slot for Army Secretary at the Pentagon is another area where Mattis has clashed with White House officials, with Mattis reportedly angered that the Trump administration selected a candidate for the job, Vincent Viola, without consulting him. Viola ultimately withdrew his name from consideration for the slot but Military Times reports that there are four new names being floated for the job. Three candidates — Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY), retired Republican Congressman Duncan L. Hunter from California, and Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) — come from congressional backgrounds with a fourth, Tim Griffin, currently serving as Arkansas’s lieutenant governor. Three of the men are Army veterans, while Hunter served in the Marine Corps, but no clear favorite is apparent either within the White House or Secretary Mattis’s inner circle.

Personnel. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the White House have locked horns once again over personnel, with the flashpoint this time being Mattis’s pick for the Pentagon’s number three position. Politico reports that Mattis wants Anne Patterson, a former ambassador to Egypt, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Columbia who has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to be his undersecretary of defense for policy. The White House is pushing back against a Patterson pick due to objections about her tenure as ambassador to Egypt during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi. Patterson’s accommodation of Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood which the Trump administration has considered designating a terrorist organization, has led White House officials to put the brakes on her nomination.

Drones. Two hundred. That’s how many airstrikes the Islamic State carried out in February with its arsenal of small, commercial drones equipped to drop grenade-sized munitions. The figure comes from the arms consultancy Armament Research Services (ARES), which carried out interviews and reviews of propaganda releases by the terrorist group. As ARES points out, the 200 figure is a likely an underestimate with many other attacks going unreported.

Copycat. But it’s not just the Islamic State using small drone bombers. Its opponents in the Iraq’s Federal Police are taking the tactic and turning it back against the terrorist group. Bellingcat surveyed social media and accounts from reporters on the ground and found that Iraq’s Federal Police have been using commercial quadrotor drones to drop tiny bombs on the Islamic State. The federal cops have also developed their own purpose-built munition for the task, with a badminton shuttlecock for a tail and a fuze for with a ring pull on the miniature warhead.

Baby boom. The war in Ukraine has kept Ukrainians busy on both on the battlefront and the home front as a miniature baby boom has emerged in some towns as an unexpected side effect of the conflict. Agence France Press reports on the impact in Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, where the birthrate has more than doubled amid intense fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels. Why turn to babymaking in the middle of a battle that has knocked out heating and electricity? “It turns out that stress is a factor,” one doctor tells the news agency.

 

Photo Credit MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/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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