- 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 and Elias Groll
And then there were three. Three U.S. carrier strike groups may soon be in operation off the Korean peninsula once the USS Nimitz, which is leaving its Washington state homeport Thursday, reaches the area.
There are already two strike groups led by the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan in the Western Pacific, operating together near the Korean coast. It marks the first time since the 1990s that two carriers have operated together near Korea. The Vinson is in the final days of an extended deployment ordered by president Trump in response to continued North Korean missile tests.
The Japanese military kicked off a three-day exercise with the two carriers in the Sea of Japan on Thursday, sending two ships, including a helicopter carrier, to work with the American vessels, according to Reuters. The drills include Japanese F-15s taking part in simulated combat with U.S. Navy F-18 fighters. “It’s the first time we have exercised with two carriers. It’s a major exercise for us,” a Japanese military spokesman said. SitRep asked the U.S. Pacific Command for comment on the three carriers, and is waiting for a response.
Mattis on the road. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left Wednesday for a trip to Singapore for an annual security conference, where anxious regional allies will be paying close attention to his comments on North Korea and Chinese land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. It’s Mattis’ second trip to Asia since January, and he’s expected to call for greater regional cooperation to contain the threat from North Korea and halt its ballistic missile program.
More money for security, maybe. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the head of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, unveiled a plan to increase military funding for U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region by $7.5 billion over the course of the next five years. And this week, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) introduced another $2.1 billion bill to send more equipment to the Asia-Pacific, which he plans to fold into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. In a statement, Thornberry said that one of the best ways to reassure allies in the region “is to increase our military presence and enhance our readiness” in the Pacific. “To do that, we need to invest in a broad range of defense capabilities and this legislation does just that.” The bill calls for about one billion dollars worth of new missiles and bombs to be shipped to U.S. bases in the region, and funding for missile defense exercises.
Keeping ahead of Kim Jong Un. The Pentagon’s $244 million test of its anti-ballistic missile system this week was a success, and it showed the U.S. can outpace North Korea’s ICBM program through 2020, director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Adm. Jim Syring told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. “I was confident before the test that we had the capability to defeat any threat that they would throw at us,” Syring said. “And I’m even more confident today after seeing the intercept test yesterday that we continue to be on that course.” While the Pentagon is pleased, some analysts say the highly scripted test — while successful — still leaves many questions over the uneven performance of the $40 billion program unanswered, as FP has reported.
Eyes on Iran. There are indications that Iran is planning on spending more money on building up its elite military forces in the coming years, U.S. Special Operation Forces Vice Commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask said at a event in Washington earlier this week. Those forces, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are active in training and equipping proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
“If anything, increased defense dollars in Iran are likely to go toward increasing that network, looking for ways to expand it,” Trask said. “We’ve already seen evidence of them taking units and officers out of the conventional side that are working with the IRGC in Syria,” the general added. “We’re going to stay focused on these proxies” and “we’re going to continue to plan primarily against that network of proxies and unconventional warfare that Iran pushes out to create that buffer for the regime,” he said. His comments came during a kickoff event for a new report by the American Enterprise Institute’s J. Matthew McInnis, “The Future of Iran’s Security Policy,” which Trask said he would make part of SOCOM’s required reading list.
Kickstart your war. FP’s Dan De Luce profiles Jim Hake, a former venture capitalist who made his fortune on tech startups in California, and now runs Spirit of America, a non-profit organization that ships non-lethal supplies like blankets and other gear to U.S. troops in combat. While some are uncomfortable with a private organization getting involved in supplying troops in the field, several retired generals and current members of Congress think the group is essential. As Hake argues in the piece, if extremists are relying on private donations to launch terrorist attacks, why can’t private citizens in America donate money to help U.S. forces fighting them? “To prevail, we need all elements of national power — private and public,” Hake said.
Subpoenas all around. Not to be outdone by their Senate colleagues, the House Intelligence Committee announced it approved subpoenas on Wednesday for two key figures in their investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. According to the Wall Street Journal, the committee also issued subpoenas to the NSA, CIA, and FBI related to the “unmasking” of the names of Trump aides in American intelligence reports.
Russian influence. Meanwhile, former FBI Director and now special counsel Robert Mueller is adding staff to his probe of Russian meddling and possible collusion between the Kremlin and Trump aides, picking up Andrew Weissmann, currently the head of DOJ’s fraud section. Weissmann is a seasoned investigator with experience in the kinds of complicated corporate transactions FBI investigators are likely to encounter when probing Trump and his real estate empire. Weissmann previously oversaw the investigation of Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal and managed the task force looking at corporate malfeasance at Enron.
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THAAD drama. South Korea has a new president who’s not so hot on hosting U.S. anti-missile systems or the Trump administration’s more aggressive rhetoric towards North Korea — leaving China to hope it can find a new friend in Blue House and elbow out some of America’s influence there. Shortly after his election as president, Moon Jae-in sent an envoy to Beijing to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Upon his return, China stopped blocking the website of Lotte, the South Korean company that owns the golf course the U.S. is using to host a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in a hint that Beijing could stop some of its economic retaliation against the deployment of the system.
Nonetheless, Xi’s outreach to President Moon may have its limits in what it can achieve on the THAAD front. Moon recently dispatched Chung Eui-yong, his top national security advisor, to meet with his White House counterpart Gen. H.R. McMaster. Reuters reports that Chung was sent to reassure the U.S. that Moon will not demand the removal of the U.S. anti-missile system despite his opposition to its deployment during the South Korean presidential campaign.
Kislyak. Again. Sources on the Congressional panel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election tell CNN that Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have had an additional undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April of 2016. Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s own investigation into Russian interference after the revelation that he had met with Kislyak in July and December despite testimony at his nomination hearing claiming not to have met with any Russian officials.
Load up on guns, bring your friends. The Defense Department is asking Congress to pay for anti-tank weapons to arm Kurdish anti-Islamic State rebels in Syria, removing some of the line item secrecy surrounding the U.S. train and equip program. Military Times reports that the Defense Department’s proposed budget includes requests for AT-4 rockets, SPG-9 recoilless rifles, and RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades. The weapons are useful for taking out armored vehicles and suicide bombs driven by Islamic State militants, but Turkey fears that Kurdish militants within the U.S.-backed rebel movement could end up using the weapons against it in the future.
Philippines. Tragedy has struck the Philippine military’s attempts to dislodge an Islamic State affiliate from the southern city of Marawi following a friendly fire incident. A Philippine military OV-10 Bronco dropped a bomb on a position held by ground troops in Marawi City, killing 11. Philippine forces have been fighting for over a week to take back the city from local Islamist militants after an attempt to capture their leader Isnilon Hapilon sparked an uprising in the city. The Philippine military has lost 38 troops in the fighting thus far.
Afghanistan. A massive truck bomb killed 90 people in a terrorist attack in Kabul on Wednesday. The device, driven by a suicide bomber and concealed inside a tanker truck, detonated in Zanbaq Square, targeting the city’s diplomatic neighborhood, home to several Afghan security agencies. No militant group has laid claim to the attack thus far but Afghan government officials say the Haqqani Network is likely responsible for the blast.