SitRep: U.S. Navy Settles Near Korean Coast; Trump Says Iran Deal Working; Russian Bombers Buzz Alaska
- 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
Sea legs. The USS Carl Vinson strike group has had its Pacific deployment extended by 30 days the ship’s skipper announced on Facebook Tuesday night, a response to the threat coming from North Korea.
The ship, which is currently moving toward the Korean coast after plenty of confusion in recent days over its whereabouts, will “reassure allies and our partners of our steadfast commitment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” strike group commander Rear Adm. James Kilby wrote in the post. “We will continue to be the centerpiece of visible maritime deterrence, providing our national command authority with flexible deterrent options, all domain access, and a visible forward presence.”
The extended deployment comes days after North Korea held a massive military parade that showcased what analysts believe are new versions of medium and long-range missiles, and conducted a missile test that failed soon after launch.
U.S. considers shootdown of NK missiles? A report in The Guardian maintains that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has briefed Congress on the possibility of shooting down North Korean missile tests as a show of strength as Pyongyang prepares for its sixth nuclear test. While no decision has been made, “one US official said the prospective shoot-down strategy would be aimed at occurring after a nuclear test, with the objective being to signal Pyongyang that the US can impose military consequences for a step Donald Trump has described as ‘unacceptable.’”
But hold on. Missile defense expert Kingston Reif of the Washington D.C.-based Arms Control Association fired off a Tweet thread Tuesday laying out the reasons why intercepting missile tests is pretty hard, and in the end is an unlikely option given U.S. presence and options in the region. The New York Times reminds us that one of the reasons for the suddenly high failure rate for North Korean missile tests could be a U.S. government hacking program pushed by President Barack Obama in 2014 which “has been adopted with enthusiasm by the Trump administration.”
Trump administration keeps on keeping on. Vice President Mike Pence continued the Trump administration’s tough talk when it comes to North Korea on Tuesday while addressing sailors on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier docked at Yokosuka, Japan. “The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready,” Pence said. “Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.”
What’s the plan? The Washington Post sums up Washington’s diplomatic plan — as much as there is one — for dealing with Pyongyang. “A series of binary, sometimes conflicting comments delivered by top officials in the past week highlight the Trump administration’s hope that hard-line rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and, more fundamentally, the lack of attractive options it faces on North Korea. While officials are eager to signal a break from previous U.S. policy, their strategy appears to be a continuation of the Obama administration’s attempt to use international economic and diplomatic pressure to force results in Pyongyang.”
Iran deal working. In a letter to Congress on Tuesday, the Trump administration said that the landmark nuclear agreement the international community reached with Tehran in 2015 is working. Thought it’s looking for ways that it’s not. “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in the notification.
“President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review…that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the [nuclear deal] is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pledged to “rip up” the deal soon after assuming office, but some of his cabinet officials like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned against it. The president has said little about the deal, which was a mainstay of his stump speeches, since moving into the White House in January.
Not a career killer. The skipper of two small U.S. naval boats that strayed into Iranian waters last year will be allowed to stay in the military, FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive story. A U.S. Navy panel has rejected a recommendation from commanders that 28-year-old Lt. David Nartker be kicked out of the Navy. The officer’s lawyer had argued that he prevented a potential conflagration with Iran over a navigational error.
“It’s an exoneration by the rank and file of the Navy,” Phillip Lowry, the officer’s defense attorney, told Foreign Policy. “His peers have looked at this, and they have decided that this doesn’t warrant separation, they want to keep him as a colleague,” he said.
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Parade trade. When North Korea drove its KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile down the street in its annual military parade, it used Chinese-made Sinotruk vehicles to haul the parade float, throwing China’s trade with its troublesome southern neighbor into an uncomfortable spotlight. A Sinotruk dealer defended the company’s trade with North Korea, saying the sale is allowed under international sanctions and that Pyongyang is responsible for converting civilian trucks to military purposes. China’s foreign ministry also defended its trade practices, saying it adheres to sanctions rules while carrying out “normal economic exchanges and trade” with the North.
Today in subtweets. As tensions between the U.S. and North Korea ratchet up, the Pentagon’s Twitter accounts is putting Pyongyang on blast with some no so subtle hints about its preparedness. On Wednesday, Pacific Command tweeted out a picture of a Paladin self-propelled artillery vehicle, writing that U.S. artillery battalions in South Korea are “ready to #FightTonight – and win.” Meanwhile, Reuters reports that North Korea surprised observers by showing up on satellite imagery playing volleyball at the country’s nuclear test site ahead of an expected test. Experts say the test is either briefly on hold or North Korea is trying to mess with analysts, in the full knowledge that all eyes are on the facility.
Air Alaska. The Cold War is back and so are Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska. The New York Times reports that the U.S. scrambled two F-22 stealth fighter jets to intercept two Russian Tu-95 bombers which ventured into the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone. Russia has grown increasingly aggressive in the skies around the world since its invasion of Ukraine, buzzing American and NATO aircraft in the Baltics and skirting close to the borders of NATO allies. Its bombers also carried out a similar approach towards Alaska on July 4th, 2014.
Saudi CT. A Saudi-led coalition of 41 countries is beginning to take shape and appears to have found a focus for its activities: keeping the Islamic State at bay as fighters from the group begin to flee from the militant group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria. The Wall Street Journal reports that the coalition, “sometimes referred to as the ‘Muslim NATO,’ is expected to have its first substantive meeting over the next few months in Riyadh when defense ministers from member states, from Morocco to Malaysia, will gather to agree on its structure and mission. However, these are Sunni-majority nations and absent from the alliance is Saudi Arabia’s major rival in the Middle East, Shiite powerhouse Iran, which sees the grouping as a sectarian show of force.”
Drones. Congress is pressuring the Trump administration to greenlight the sale of armed drones to Jordan, Defense News reports. Twenty-two members of Congress — 20 Republicans and two Democrats — signed a letter calling for the U.S. to allow the sale. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a longtime champion of drone sales to Jordan whose district includes drone-maker General Atomics, is behind the push. Hunter argues that Jordan will simply buy Chinese-made armed drones like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors if the U.S. continues to deny it American-made technology.
Flexing. Jordan published a video of its King Abdullah flexing his muscles and participating in a live fire exercise with troops on Tuesday. The video shows Abdullah spilling out of an armored personnel carrier and clearing a series of buildings in a simulated special operations raid. Abdullah is no stranger to feats of stylized and heavily publicized bravado, posing in full operator gear in 2015 after the Islamic State carried out a grisly execution of a Jordanian pilot.
Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Dusty Howell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images