The Cable

SitRep: Military Build Up Before North Korea Nuke Test; More on the MOAB; CIA Director’s Wikileaks-Loving Past

U.S. Aims To Wipe Out Afghan ISIS in 2017; Trump’s Military “Total Authorization;” Tomahawk Missiles on Chopping Block

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un (2nd R) attends a ceremony for the opening of a housing project in Pyongyang on April 13, 2017.
With thousands of adoring North Koreans looking on -- along with invited international media -- Kim Jong-Un opened a prestige housing project as he seeks to burnish his nation's image even as concerns over its nuclear capabilities soar. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES        (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un (2nd R) attends a ceremony for the opening of a housing project in Pyongyang on April 13, 2017. With thousands of adoring North Koreans looking on -- along with invited international media -- Kim Jong-Un opened a prestige housing project as he seeks to burnish his nation's image even as concerns over its nuclear capabilities soar. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Will Saturday be the day? We’re one day out from April 15, which marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father and grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the latest repressive ruler of the impoverished police state. The date has long been circled on the calendars of military planners and policy makers around the globe as one that sees the North show off its military strength, including missile launches.  

This year looks to be extra special, as Pyongyang is expected to conduct a its sixth nuclear test in the last decade — which many analysts expect to be its biggest.

The impending tests, and the record number of missile launches over the past several months have “pushed the North Korean threat to the top of White House’s priority list,” FP’s Paul McLeary reports, “prompting a rash of tweets, statements and even diplomatic bargaining from Trump and his team. But the on-the-fly nature of the the White House’s North Korea policy has sown confusion in Washington and foreign capitals, conveying the sense the administration’s strategy is still in flux, and that the president himself is learning on the job about a strategic threat that long predated his time in office.”

Recent satellite imagery taken of the Punggye-ri test site has shown the continued movement of North Korea military personnel and construction around the base. The North has conducted all of its five nuclear weapons tests in underground tunnels at the site.

Response? The U.S. has dispatched an aircraft carrier and other naval assets to sail closer to the Korean coast in recent days, and maintains dozens of military aircraft on nearby Okinawa. Several intelligence officials have told NBC News that Washington “is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test,” though other news outlets, including FP, have been unable to verify those claims.

Visit. Vice President Mike Pence is due to arrive in Seoul on Sunday on the first stop of an Asia tour, where he’ll huddle with regional leaders.

Goes boom. American military commanders in Afghanistan used a 21,000-lb bomb to blow up an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, employing one of the country’s most powerful non-nuclear bombs for the first time ever in combat. The MOAB, as it’s known, was dropped from a Special Operations MC-130 cargo plane, and wiped out a tunnel complex In Nangarhar province.

By Friday, Afghan officials were saying that 36 militants were killed in the blast. Given that each bomb costs about $16 million to manufacture, you can do the math on how much the U.S. taxpayer just spent to kill each fighter.

Wipe out ISIS? “Our goal is to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul, told FP’s Emily Tamkin and Paul McLeary. The U.S. military estimates there are somewhere between 600 and 800 Islamic State fighters operating in Afghanistan, and last month, Afghan troops backed up by American Special Forces advisors launched a major offensive against the group in Nangarhar, which resulted in the death of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar on April 8, the first U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year.

Friendly fire. The strike came on the day that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq announced that days earlier, one of its planes hit an outpost manned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near the Syrian city of Taqba, killing 18 of the fighters. The strike was called in by another SDF unit, which thought their fellow militia members were an Islamic State formation.

The strike highlights some of the dangers inherent in the stepped-up bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, in which strikes are approved more quickly, and at a lower level, than they had been in the past. It also comes in the wake of several other recent incidents in which U.S. pilots have been accused of mistakenly killing civilians in both Iraq and Syria. FP has lots more on those strikes, and the ongoing investigations, here.

He said it. On Thursday, President Donald Trump alluded to his hands-off approach to targeting, which stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s often unwelcome involvement in choosing targets and signing off on bombing runs. “What I do is I authorize my military,” Trump said. “We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done the job, as usual. We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.

Wiki what? New CIA Director Mike Pompeo excoriated WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange on Thursday in his first public remarks since taking over the spy agency, reports new FP intelligence reporter Jenna McLauglin.

“We at the CIA find the celebration of entities like WikiLeaks to be perplexing and deeply troubling,” he said. “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” and looks like “a nonstate, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said before a packed house at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pompeo also appeared to threaten U.S. action against the site, saying that WikiLeaks can no longer hide behind free speech arguments. “It ends now,” Pompeo said.

There’s some awkwardness here, however. Last summer, as the site published fresh disclosures from hacked emails of the DNC, Pompeo happily and promptly tweeted them out. Trump publicly cited WikiLeaks in rally speeches dozens of times in just the last month of the election and tweeted just days before the election how much he loved the website. Wikileaks responded by reposting Pompeo’s now-deleted Tweets.

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

Twitter fight. North Korea is angry with President Donald Trump’s incessant “aggressive” tweeting, according to the country’s vice foreign minister. Vice Minister Han Song Ryol told the AP in an interview that Trump’s penchant for social media bravado is “making trouble” on the Korean Peninsula and that the president is “always making provocations with his aggressive words.” Han also engaged in the customary North Korean issuance of war threats. Referring to Pyongyang’s “powerful nuclear deterrent,” he said, “we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike.”

Politics of investigation. The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says the U.S. contention that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the town of Khan Shaykhun is “a credible allegation.” The comment came at a meeting of the U.N. in which the U.S. ambassador to the group, Kenneth D. Ward, unloaded on the Syrian government and Russia, accusing the Assad regime of still harboring chemical weapons and saying Russia is looking to “bury the truth” about them. The OPCW is currently engaged in a fact-finding mission to investigate the incident. In an interview this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that a chemical weapons attack had even taken place, labeling it a “fabrication.”

Personnel. The Trump White House has given the nod to Boeing senior vice president for Patrick Shanahan to be its next deputy secretary of defense, but Defense News reports that Shanahan’s lack of experience working in the Pentagon may make life difficult for him once he makes it through a lengthy confirmation process. The news outlet spoke to former Defense Department insiders who said Shanahan is going to have to get up to speed fast on the building’s often labyrinthine workflow and politics as he takes over from Obama administration holdover Bob Work. Shanahan’s recent past as a defense industry executive will also likely extend his confirmation process as he works to divest himself of financial interests in the company.

Confirmation. President Trump’s pick for Army Secretary, however, looks like he’ll have an even tougher time in the confirmation process because of his harsh views of transgender people. The Hill reports that LGBT rights groups are gearing up to oppose Mark Green for Army Secretary because of his comments claiming “transgender is a disease,” that “armed citizens” should fight the government to stop its enforcement of rights for such groups, and because of legislation he sponsored in the Tennessee state Senate allowing therapists to deny care to LGBT people. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has signaled opposition to Green’s nomination, saying she has “serious concerns” about him.

Tomahawks. The Tomahawk cruise missile garnered a fair amount of positive press in the wake of the Syrian airstrike, with slightly gauche comments from NBC’s Brian Williams calling its launch a “beautiful” sight and gushing praise from President Trump himself. Nonetheless, National Defense reports that the missile’s days may be numbered, according to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva. Selva told an audience at the Air Force Association that the Navy is looking to retire the Tomahawk in favor of a new land attack cruise missile that can offer more lethality and survivability than its predecessor.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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