SitRep: Tillerson Hints at Pre-Emptive Strikes in North Korea; WH Apologizes to UK for Spicer Spy Claim; Budget Season Hits
- 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.
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Tillerson on the road. During a press conference in South Korea on Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that Washington might be open to pre-emptive attacks on North Korean weapons facilities. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, [military action] is on the table,” Tillerson said.
He added that the Obama administration policy of practicing “strategic patience” with North Korea was a failure. “Let me be clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said without elaborating what those policy changes might entail. He did say, however, “we do not want things to get to a military conflict… but obviously if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response.”
While in Tokyo on Thursday, the secretary ripped the “20 years of failed approach” to North Korea, saying he would press the Chinese leadership this weekend “to bring North Korea to a different attitude.” On Saturday, Tillerson will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he wraps up a three-nation trip through East Asia. He tossed barbs in Beijing’s direction, as well, calling China’s reaction to the U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea “inappropriate and troubling.” (Beijing has shut down about two dozen South Korean chain stories operating in China.)
Budget season! The “skinny” budget blueprint unveiled by the White House on Thursday is rather short on details, and faces long odds in Congress, where President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans expressed serious reservations about numerous funding cuts.
“As a political document,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Colum Lynch write in their wrapup, the budget “reflects the White House’s preference for a narrow definition of U.S. interests not seen since before World War II. Titled ‘America First,’ the Trump budget also reflects a deep skepticism of government programs meant to defuse conflicts, fight poverty abroad, or battle transnational challenges like climate change.”
Republican leaders, many of whom said they supported the overall thrust of the budget, criticized specific cuts, especially those aimed at the State Department. “I’m absolutely shocked at the Administration’s puny request,” said Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. “The U.S. has a vital role to play in advancing democracy, protecting the innocent, helping the displaced and vulnerable, and offering diplomatic solutions to overseas unrest and other challenges abroad.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), focusing on the defense budget buildup he considers insufficient, added, “it is clear that this budget proposed today cannot pass the Senate.”
Spies like us. The normally silent British intelligence agency slammed the Trump administration and Fox News after press secretary Sean Spicer cited a Fox commentator’s report claiming former President Barack Obama had asked the GCHQ to spy on President Donald Trump.
In an extremely rare public statement, the agency said that “recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” a spokesman said. “They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman added. The Telegraph newspaper reported Friday that both Spicer and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, were forced to apologize to the British government over the claims. “The apology came direct from them,” a source told the paper. Senate intel chiefs have said they have found no evidence at all for Trump’s claims that the Obama administration was eavesdropping on Trump Tower.
Strike controversy. There are conflicting reports over an overnight U.S. air strike in Idlib, Syria. Some locals on the ground told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the strike hit a mosque in al Jinah, a village between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo, and that 42 civilians had been killed. The U.S. Central Command denies this, issuing a short statement Thursday evening saying, “U.S. forces conducted an airstrike on an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists. Idlib has been a significant safe haven for Al Qaeda in recent years.” More to come.
More on the budget. Despite the Trump administration’s proposed $54 billion increase in the 2018 defense budget and the $30 billion defense supplemental offered for this year, it’s worth noting that the Trump administration hasn’t come out with a defined strategy to justify the increased spending.
Strategy coming? The White House nominated six civilian officials to occupy some of the most critical jobs at the Pentagon on Thursday. “The nominations come after months of hard-fought battles between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the White House over staffing the Pentagon,” FP’s Paul McLeary writes.
The most significant nomination is longtime Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense, essentially the No. 2 civilian official at the Pentagon. Shanahan, who has no previous experience working in the federal government, has been working on the commercial aircraft side of Boeing operations. One person with knowledge of the deliberations tells FP that Mattis had wanted a deputy who could effectively argue policy differences at the White House and on Capitol Hill. But the White House wanted a business executive, and their position won out in the end.
Mike Flynn. Is he back, or did he never really leave? The Wall Street Journal first reported Thursday that the former national security advisor — fired by Trump for misleading Vice President Mike Pence over his conversations with Russian officials — might have more contacts with Moscow than anyone thought.
Flynn “was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russian companies shortly before he became a formal adviser” to Trump during the presidential campaign, working for a “Russian air cargo company that had been suspended as a vendor to the United Nations following a corruption scandal, and by a Russian cybersecurity company that was then trying to expand its business with the U.S. government.” The company, Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, “has long been suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence services,” the New York Times adds.
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Israel. Late Thursday night, Israeli fighter jets hit a range of targets within Syria. That’s not particularly novel as Israel has reportedly targeted Hezbollah arms shipments from the country headed for Lebanon. What is new is that Syria fired surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft. Three missiles failed to hit their target, triggering warning sirens within Israel in the process. The Syrian army said that it had shot down one of the Israeli jets near Palmyra but thus far there’s no evidence for the claim.
The incident may have also revealed a new Israeli air defense capability. The Times of Israel reports that the Syrian SA-5 anti aircraft missiles fired at Israeli aircraft were intercepted by an Israeli Air Force Arrow missile battery. Arrow missiles are marketed for use against incoming ballistic missiles aimed at land-based targets rather than taking out surface-to-air missiles.
Bases. China has distributed military equipment across a number of islands in the South China Sea but its most important base in the region, according to the Diplomat, is the Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island thanks mostly to the nuclear submarines it houses. Satellite imagery reveals piers and an underground berthing facility inside a mountain capable of housing every kind of submarine in China’s fleet. The mountain berthing facility can also house China’s Jin-class Type 094 submarines, Beijing’s only submarine capable of firing nuclear missiles.
Construction. China is also gearing up to build environmental monitoring stations in the Scarborough shoal, an area which is also claimed by the Philippines, according to Reuters. China and the Philippines had been moving closer following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, and the Philippine government thought it had extracted a promise from China not to undertake construction in the disputed shoal. But China is moving ahead with the project, earning sanctions threats from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). Rubio and Cardin introduced legislation that would restrict visas for those working on the project followed by financial sanctions against international companies that facilitate Chinese firms and individuals involved.
Downturn. Russia’s defense budget is taking its deepest hit since the bad old days of the 1990s, Jane’s reports. The numbers out of Russian Federal Treasury show that Russia’s defense budget has been slashed by a quarter in 2017 relatively to last year. Russia had hoped to be spending more on defense and modernizing its weapons. But falling oil and gas prices as well as Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have taken a toll on the Russian treasury and Moscow’s ability to subsidize a defense expansion.
Spy games. One of the spies at the center of the U.S. accusations of about Russian intelligence hacking into Yahoo may be a double agent, the New York Times reports. The Department of Justice alleges that Dmitry Dokuchaev, an officer with Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), ordered cyber criminals to break into Yahoo and steal data on millions of user accounts. But Dokuchaev is also in hot water with Russian authorities, who arrested him December and accused him of acting as a double agent on behalf of the United States. Dokuchaev reportedly started his career out as a cyber criminal himself, working in the online credit card theft business before averting prosecution by agreeing to for the FSB.
Pew pew. The Army will soon have a 60 kilowatt laser to strap to its trucks. Defense News reports that Lockheed Martin successfully tested a laser weapon earlier this month, blasting a small drone and ground targets with a 58 kilowatts laser attached to an Army Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) and marking a world record. The HEMTT has carried a laser before but not quite as powerful, rated at only 10 kilowatts. With the test in hand, the Army is now set to take delivery of the weapon.
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