SitRep: Bluster, Uncertainty, Over North Korea Policy

SitRep: Bluster, Uncertainty, Over North Korea Policy


With Adam Rawnsley

Where to go on NK policy. In May, President Donald Trump nominated San Diego hotelier Doug Manchester to become the next U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. But the president has yet to name a nominee to head up the diplomatic mission in South Korea.

That absence is being felt now more than ever as North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles and works to miniaturize nuclear payloads, while president Trump openly threatens war with Pyongyang. Having a trusted diplomat in Seoul would also help soothe allies when the president and his cabinet members offer markedly different takes on U.S. policy toward the North, as they have done this week.

Trump, of course, improvised his “fire and fury” line, while his Secretary of State and Defense Secretary were left to chart their own courses.

The NYT: “The president’s advisers calibrated his dire warning with statements that, if not directly contradictory, emphasized different points. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stressed diplomacy and reassured Americans that they could ‘sleep well at night,’ while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said North Korea risked “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if it did not ‘stand down.’”

The North has arrived. Writing in FP, proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis says that the world has been “living in collective denial” over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities for years, and “the big question is where to go from here. Some of my colleagues still think the United States might persuade North Korea to abandon, or at least freeze, its nuclear and missile programs. I am not so sure. I suspect we might have to settle for trying to reduce tensions so that we live long enough to figure this problem out. But there is only one way to figure out who is right: Talk to the North Koreans.”

Fact Check. President Trump also claimed on Wednesday that thanks to him, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “now stronger and more powerful than ever before.” The statement, of course, is completely untrue. Nuclear modernization efforts are measured in years, not the seven months he has been in office. In January, the president ordered a review of the nuclear enterprise. That review is ongoing.

A new Iranian drone? Earlier this week, the U.S. Central Command said an Iranian Qom-1 drone interfered with the fight operations of a U.S. F-18 trying to land on the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf, putting the life of the American pilot — and sailors on deck — at risk

Thing was, we couldn’t find anyone who had heard of the drone before, including think tankers, drone experts, and multiple officials at the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Navy. Finally, Cmdr. Bill Urban of the U.S. Navy Central Command told FP’s Paul McLeary that the Qom-1 is actually the well-known Sadegh-1, just with a new, U.S.-supplied name. Urban added, “the Sadegh-1/Qom-1 is capable of carrying two weapons.  At the time of [Tuesday’s] interaction, the Qom-1 was unarmed.”

Earlier this year, the Office of Naval Intelligence confirmed that both the regular Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard Navy use drones, though both are primarily employed for reconnaissance missions, “but as Iran improves its lethal and armed UAV technology, both navies are likely to employ these advancements in the maritime environment.”

South China Sea. Amid the North Korea drama, a U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, Reuters reports. The USS John S. McCain cruised past Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, marking the third fonop of the Trump presidency.

Servicemembers sue Trump. Five active duty service women have filed the first lawsuit against President Donald Trump for what they say is an unconstitutional effort to stop transgender personnel from serving. The members of the Air Force, the Coast Guard and the Army were previously men who have transitioned. Earlier this month, with no warning to the Pentagon, the president Tweeted his intent to overturn a 10-month-old Pentagon policy allowing transgender troops to serve openly.

The case, filed in D.C. federal court, claims that “Trump’s directive to exclude transgender people from military service discriminates against Plaintiffs based on their sex and transgender status,” which they argue is in violation of the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment.

FP reported first last month that Vice President Mike Pence has been a key player in the effort to overturn the Pentagon’s transgender rule.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.

Light attack. The Air Force is holding an audition in the New Mexico desert for light attack aircraft to eventually replace the service’s beloved A-10 Warthog as part of the OA-X program. Among the planes under consideration are the AirTractor and AT-802LA-29 as well as Embraer’s Super Tucano and AT-6 Wolverine.

Russia investigation. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election is getting aggressive, with federal agents executing a search warrant on the home of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in July. The search warrant targeted financial records from Manafort but Mueller has also reached out to Manafort’s son-in-law and business partner Jeffrey Yohai in an apparent bid to ramp up the pressure.

Remittances. Kuwait is a close ally of the U.S. but that doesn’t mean it’s inclined in the slightest to boot the over 6,000 North Korean workers living in the country and funneling money back home the Democratic People’s Republic. The U.S. has leaned on Kuwait to stop granting visas to North Korean workers and end direct flights to the North but thus far Kuwait has rebuffed the requests, contradicting a State Department report congratulating the country for its help in isolating North Korea.

Raqqa. The fight for the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa is a slow and difficult slog thanks to tenacious fighting by the terrorist group and improvised explosive devices laced “in every centimetre” of the city, according to Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey. Pro tip: don’t crowdfund your terrorist plots on social media. A Russian national with links to the Islamic State was arrested by Turkish authorities for planning to use a drone to attack American military aircraft at Incirlik Air Base. The man also allegedly planned to attack a Shia religious community in Turkey, soliciting donations for his plot on the Telegram social media messaging app.

High frequency. The U.S. has expelled two Cuban diplomats and recalled a handful of its own from the new embassy in Havana after a bizarre incident in which American personnel in Cuba suffered hearing loss as a result of an unknown sonic device emitting sound not audible to human ears. Cuba denies harming American diplomats, saying it “has never permitted, nor will permit” harm to diplomats or their families.”

Say ‘cheese.’ A Russian surveillance plane flew over Washington, D.C.’s most sensitive sites, including the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and the CIA on Wednesday. Far from being a cloak and dagger operation, the flight was part of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the U.S., Russia, and other signatories to conduct periodic, reciprocal overflights of each other’s territory.

Afghanistan. The Taliban has been having trouble taking over Afghanistan’s more populous cities so the insurgent group has pivoted, aiming to take over a broader range of more remote areas to demonstrate its reach. Taliban insurgents have also doubled down on violence against civilians, targeting them in greater numbers in order to fuel anger at the Afghan government.

DIUx. The Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outreach organization is rolling out one of the tools it’s helped to develop, a suite of communications tools designed to help drone pilots coordinate to attack “pop up targets” of opportunity, like vehicles on the run. The tools, developed by the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, will get a demonstration at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, giving the fledgling organization a chance to prove its worth to the anti-Islamic State war.


Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images