- 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.
With Adam Rawnsley
End hits. Vice President Mike Pence declared “the era of strategic patience is over” when it comes to U.S. policy toward North Korea, using his visit to South Korea on Monday as an opportunity to hammer the North. Pence used recent U.S. strikes in Syria and Afghanistan as examples to hold up to the North Korean regime, adding the Hermit Kingdom to the list of countries the Trump administration has threatened with military action.
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said in a joint appearance with South Korean acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said.
Within the past two weeks, the U.S. Navy hit a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk missiles after the regime launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians, and dropped the largest non-nuclear device ever unleashed in combat on a warren of tunnels and caves used by Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The Vice President’s words are the Trump administration’s harshest to date concerning the North, which is expected to conduct its sixth nuclear test in the upcoming days. He is following in the footsteps of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who recently said “action” must be taken to stop the North’s nuclear program, and the president himself, who promised to “take care of” the problem with or without China’s help.
McMaster joins in. While the Pentagon has generally shied away from warlike rhetorical flourishes, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday that President Trump would not shy away from moving against North Korea, but “we do not want to telegraph in any way how we’ll respond.”
“What you saw last week with the president’s decisive response to the Assad regime,” McMaster continued, is “this national security team is capable of rapidly responding to those sorts of crises or incidents and events and providing the president with options. And our president is clearly comfortable making tough decisions and respond.” The general did add a note of caution however, saying “it’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully.”
Bulls on parade. On Friday, the North Korean regime flexed some muscle during an annual “Day of the Sun” military parade, where new platforms were rolled out for the first time. Analyst Jeffrey Lewis Tweeted out a great rundown of what we saw, while CNN dove deeper in what was there, and what wasn’t.
Nukes. But the impending nuclear test hangs over everything. Over the past five tests, North Korea has increased the explosive yield of its nuclear warheads, but just as important, it is using the tests “to try out different modifications or warhead designs, such as producing lighter warheads that could fit on the tip of missile or using tritium gas to create a more powerful bomb through boosted fission,” Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told SitRep.
“We should also assume that North Korea can build a warhead small enough to fit on short or medium range ballistic missiles,” Davenport continued. Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told the New York Times that the growing crisis with North Korea is like “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”
Going it alone. When it comes to military action already underway in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, it has become pretty clear that president Trump has empowered his military commanders to act on their own, without any explicit direction or sign-off from the White House. The massive bomb strike in Afghanistan was ordered by the commanding general in Afghanistan, and the increased air strikes across the Middle East are being directed solely by commanders on the ground, as FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported.
More bombs, little word from Foggy Bottom. “There’s nothing formal, but it is beginning to take shape,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Wall Street Journal last week. “There is a sense among these commanders that they are able to do a bit more—and so they are.” This more aggressive military approach “is expanding as the Trump administration debates a comprehensive new strategy to defeat Islamic State,” the story continues. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “has sketched out such a global plan, but the administration has yet to agree on it. While the political debate continues, the military is being encouraged to take more aggressive steps against Islamic extremists around the world.”
What kind of difference this can make in the 16-year war in Afghanistan, or the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — where a military success isn’t the same as achieving political stability — remains to be seen, as NPR pointed out over the weekend.
Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Land rush. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says his country needs to “act fast” and start squatting on nearby islands in the South China Sea before other countries beat them to it, according to the Manila Bulletin. Duterte told reporters he’s already ordered the country’s military to occupy and begin construction on ten uninhabited islands “because everybody is grabbing every land there in the South China Sea so if we do not act fast, we will end up with nothing.” The Philippines has been locked in a series of territorial disputes with China over Beijing’s expansive claims to territory in waters claimed by Manila.
Hacked? North Korea flubbed a missile launch on Sunday, with the missile blowing up shortly after launch, according to U.S. Pacific Command. Pyongyang has had its fair share of test failures but this latest one was dogged by something new: rumors of U.S. hacking. The suggestion that U.S. intelligence hackers could’ve interfered with the launch was floated by David Shuster of i24 News, who said “multiple intelligence sources” told him that “digital interference” disrupted the news. The U.K.’s former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind also told the BBC that “there is a very strong belief that the US – through cyber methods – has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail.” But on NBC Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he didn’t think hackers had anything to do with the test failure and experts say that, if anything, the U.S. likely has a better ability to hack North Korea’s broader missile supply chain than any individual test.
Horror. A terrorist attack on a bus convoy in Syria killed an estimated 126 civilians on Saturday. Reuters reports that the blast took place on a convoy evacuating residents of the predominately Shiite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya as part of a negotiated deal between the Assad regime and rebels that allowed for the evacuation of the besieged rebel-held town of Madaya. The Assad regime says that a car bomb attacked the convoy — a claim buttressed by a wounded girl who told Hezbollah media that a man in a vehicle offered children in the convoy potato chips before detonating a bomb. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack but the rebel Free Syrian Army denounced the attack.
Nukes. The Air Force is testing an upgraded version of America’s last remaining tactical nuclear weapon, the B61-12 bomb. The test didn’t involve a detonation but rather involved a release of an inert version of the weapon from an F-16 over the desert in Nevada. The National Nuclear Safety Administration is updating the decades-old bomb and more tests will take place before its expected production date of 2020.
Spoilers. The Shadow Brokers, a mysterious group of self-proclaimed hackers with access to some of the National Security Agency’s sensitive software, dumped a trove of tools used by the agency to compromise computers running Microsoft software. But the impact of the release, posted by the group to the code-sharing website Github, was blunted nearly a month before publishing when Microsoft issued fixes for all of the vulnerabilities released in Friday’s post. It’s unclear how Microsoft became aware of the vulnerabilities in March but some have speculated that the U.S. government tipped off the company about exploits it was using which may have been compromised by the hacking group.
SEALs. Three anonymous Navy SEALs tell CBS that the culture of the Navy’s elite special operations unit is in crisis, alleging a widespread culture of corruption within the unit. A retired SEAL tells the news outlet that he’s seen commanders hand out contractors for inferior equipment to friends and associates whose deficient products have led to the death of SEALs in combat. One active duty SEAL claims that millionaires have sought out the company of former SEALs, derisively referred to as “SEAL pets,” for status and occasional access to classified information.
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