SitRep: Trump Missile Test; U.S. Moves in Syria; Chinese Defense Budgets; U.S. Allies Rebuff Russians
- 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.
The latest test. North Korea has kept up the historic pace of its missile launches, shooting four more long-range missiles from a site in northwest North Korea on Monday. The missiles flew an average of 620 miles before falling into the sea between North Korea and Japan.
The launches are the second to occur since President Donald Trump took office in January, and follow last month’s test of the Pukguksong-2, a medium-range ballistic missile which traveled just over 300 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.
In a statement, the U.S. Strategic Command said the launches ”did not pose a threat to North America,” though the words don’t seem to have calmed any nerves in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo.
North Korea stays active. The launches come amid a flurry of worrying activity from the North, and “follow a remarkable month in which Kim Jong Un’s regime tested a solid-fuel rocket that it says is part of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States and in which the regime is accused of assassinating the leader’s half brother,” the Washington Post notes.
The missiles landed with the boundaries of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo Monday that “these missile launches clearly show that North Korea has developed a new threat. We will collect information and strongly protest to North Korea.”
The latest provocation is also seen as a response to the kickoff of an annual military exercise in South Korea that involves tens of thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops. About 3,600 U.S. service members recently deployed to the South for the Foal Eagle exercise, joining the 28,000 U.S. troops already based in South Korea. The drill runs through the end of April.
The acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn on Monday called for his government to push harder for “ways to effectively strengthen the United States’ extended deterrence” for South Korea, referring to new missile defense capabilities. While he not go into detail, his comments came hard on the heels of a New York Times report that president Trump’s national security team recently discussed new options against North Korea, including the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea.
U.S. troops in Syria. U.S. Special Forces have been on the move in northern Syria, deploying near the city of Manbij over the weekend to act as a buffer between American-backed Syrian militias and forces controlled by Turkey. Photos have emerged of U.S. Stryker vehicles configured for the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and specialized Humvees used by Special Forces moving near the city, and U.S. officials confirmed that the American presence around the city had been beefed up.
The Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army militia — bolstered by Turkish special forces — moved on Manbij last week, as Turkish officials said they wanted to clear the Kurdish YPG out of the area. Local Syrian forces and the U.S. military deny that the Kurdish forces are near the city. On a recent trip to northern Syria, FP’s Paul McLeary spent time with both U.S. Special Forces and their local allies near the city, and found the Syrians clearly worried about the Turkish threat.
The view from Baghdad. Speaking with FP on Monday, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad Col. John Dorrian said the American troop presence in Syria and Iraq hasn’t grown, despite the movement of more U.S. troops to Manbij. “There are adequate forces in the area” to handle the situation and “reassure our allies and our partners,” he said.
The Manbij Military Council has also said that it turned back a Russian convoy of armored vehicles and troops that tried to enter the area, but Dorrian said he hasn’t seen any increase in Russian troops or aircraft around the city.
FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary write that the situation in northern Syria, which sees an aggressive Turkish move toward the U.S.-backed forces represents a major test for the Trump administration and its promises to defeat ISIS quickly. “Until now, U.S. military commanders have ruled out anything beyond some artillery support and an advisory role for U.S. special operations forces. But some officials and administration advisors are open to at least considering the idea of using conventional forces in a full-fledged combat role.”
Trump trying to plug leaks. In an exclusive from FP’s Elias Groll, he finds that the White House “is searching for technology to shut off the leaks that have roiled the Trump administration in its first weeks and already caused the resignation of one top aide and a political firestorm for another.
White House IT officials met with at least one private firm selling a network security system that would give administration officials control over how staffers use computers and cellphones to transmit sensitive information, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Slow grow. China has been slowing the rate of increase in its defense spending, with the official 2017 budget receiving the lowest year-over-year percent increase since 2010. The Washington Post reports that China’s official defense budget will be around 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product this year, although China’s official spending figures are widely believed to undercount the true size of the defense budget. Despite the slowing overall growth, Chinese observes expect that the People’s Liberation Army Navy will still be China’s favored service in terms of spending, receiving the lion’s share of budget increases.
Chinese boots are on the ground inside Afghanistan, according to a report from Military Times. Photos of Chinese mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles inside of Afghanistan have surfaced in Indian media and the Pentagon is aware that China is operating inside the country but China says its police, and not military, are the ones carrying out operations along a narrow sliver of the Chinese-Afghan border. It’s unclear what China’s operations are aimed at specifically but Beijing has long been concerned that members of its Uighur minority and Islamist extremists could using Afghanistan as a base for attacks inside of China.
Backdoor. The United Nations Security Council has slapped numerous sanctions on North Korea and its arms exports (and imports). So it’s a bit embarrassing that U.N. peacekeepers in Africa have been found using North Korean weapons. The AP got a look at a confidential UN report that shows Pyongyang has found its arms deals in Africa are a relatively easier way around the sanctions as there are willing customers and lax enforcement of sanctions rules. The UN panel of experts on North Korea reports that a shipment of 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades from North Korea sailing through the Suez canal attained the dubious honor of being “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions.”
Casualties. The Pentagon has released its official estimate of the number of civilians killed in airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq. Reuters reports that the Pentagon says coalition aircraft were responsible for the deaths of 21 civilians between November of 2016 and January, contributing to a total of 220 civilians killed since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve. Other groups, such as Airwars, claim a much higher figure of 2,463 civilians based on a methodology that includes aggregated and weighted reports from monitoring groups and local media.
CSAR. A Syrian MiG-23 crashed in Turkey and the pilot is now claiming he was shot down. Reuters reports that the pilot, who was rescued by Turkish authorities, says he was downed while flying over Idlib. The Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham has claimed responsibility for downing the aircraft although the assertion has yet to be independently verified. The rescue by Turkey marks yet another sign of the turnaround in relations between Ankara, the Assad regime, and its supporters. In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 carrying out operations over Syria after it violated Turkish airspace, leading to a lengthy and bitter dispute between Turkey and Russia.
Oops. Plans for a nuclear submarine tucked inside the lining of a suitcase sold in a charity shop. It sounds like the beginning of a spy novel but it’s what happened at a store in Wales when workers cracked open a donated suitcase. The BBC reports that the plans appear to originate from Vickers, the manufacturer of the sub. British Navy decommissioned the Trafalgar in 2009 and the drawings found inside the briefcase have since been declassified. Nonetheless, the mystery as to how they got there remains.
Black eye for the Corps. An investigation by War Horse and Reveal shows that the Defense Department is investigating hundreds of Marines for trading revenge porn — revealing photographs taken and shared without knowledge or consent — of female service members on social media. A link to a shared drive containing the images was posted to a since-deleted Facebook page with 30,000 followers. The Naval Criminal Investigative service has begun an investigation into the incident and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green issued statements condemning “this type of demeaning or degrading behavior.”
It remains to be seen what will come of the investigation. A similar incident took place among Marines in 2013. Then-commandant Gen. James Amos issued a memo on proper social media behavior and the Marine Corps subsequently referred a dozen Marines engaged in allegedly inappropriate behavior on social media to their commanders “for appropriate action.”
Imagery. Author Wesley Morgan took a stroll through satellite imagery of northern Syria and found what appears to be a military base housing American special operations forces, including Blackhawk, Chinook, and Apache helicopters as well as V-22 tilt-rotors.
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images