- 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.
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
So, what should the U.S. do if the North launches a missile that could threaten American territory? The NYT’s David E. Sanger lays out the unpalatable options: pre-emptive strike that would at best only be a glancing blow against the North’s capabilities. Shoot it down with the proven Aegis anti-missile system on U.S. warships in the Pacific. Employ the $300 billion U.S. ballistic missile defense systems based in California and Alaska…which only have about a 50 percent success rate, and then only under testing conditions designed to ensure success.
Then of course, there’s the current route: sanctions. But as FP’s Colum Lynch reports, the United Nations doesn’t see economic pressure as having had much effect on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
War games. The Pentagon, as it does, has been running war games about potential conflicts in North Korea for decades, writes FP contributor Chetan Peddada, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer in South Korea. Several years ago, FP’s Paul McLeary was allowed to observe part of an Army war game aimed at the North — and it wasn’t pretty.
We’ll see. Asked if the U.S. and North Korea are destined to go to war, President Donald Trump said Thursday that “nothing’s inevitable.” Speaking during a news conference alongside Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Trump said “It would be great if something else could be worked out” but that “It will be a very sad day for North Korea” if the U.S. does go to war with Pyongyang.
Take warning. “Air Force aircraft that detect radioactive fallout and track ballistic missiles are operating on Okinawa in the wake of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and ahead of an anticipated intercontinental ballistic missile launch,” Stars and Stripes reports from Okinawa. A WC-135 Constant Phoenix — commonly referred to as a nuke-sniffer — has been at Kadena Air Base since Sept. 5, the paper reports.
Senate shuts down Tillerson. “In a stark repudiation of the Trump administration, lawmakers on Thursday passed a spending bill that overturned the president’s steep proposed cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy. Folded into the bill are management amendments that straitjacket some of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to redesign the State Department,” FP’s Robbie Gramer reports.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $51 billion for the State Department, foreign operations, and related programs in its 2018 appropriations bill — almost $11 billion above President Trump’s request. “The move signals a growing congressional backlash against the Trump administration’s aims to slash funding for diplomacy, foreign aid, and the United Nations.”
Win for Assad. Syrian forces and their Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah allies achieved a significant victory earlier this week in linking up with a besieged military base in ISIS-controlled Deir Ezzor. Bu there’s still plenty of fighting left to do, even against a weakened, but desperate, Islamic State adversary that still controls territory.
But questions about what happens next. U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are eying the Syrian offensive in the province, which was next on their list after they finish the fight for Raqqa. “The question now is where precisely the line between regime and Kurdish areas will be drawn after Islamic State’s defeat and whether it will solidify into a semi-permanent partition of the country or spark a new bout of violence that could force the U.S. to make difficult choices,” writes the WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov.
Trump surge in Afghanistan not playing well overseas. From the AP: “The top diplomats from China and Pakistan took swipes at President Donald Trump’s newly unveiled Afghanistan policy on Friday as they called for new talks with the Taliban to resolve the 16-year conflict.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing stood firmly behind its ‘ironclad friend’ Pakistan, even though ‘some countries’ did not give Islamabad the credit it deserved in fighting terrorism, a pointed reference to the U.S. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s first trip abroad to Beijing this week appeared to highlight how ties between the two all-weather allies have grown even closer while Pakistan’s critical relationship with the U.S. is disintegrating amid mutual recriminations and distrust.”
Obama policy embraced by Trump. “Despite calls from members of both parties, President Donald Trump will not propose an updated authorization for use of military force measure to cover ongoing U.S. operations against groups such as al-Qaida, the Islamic State and others,” a White House National Security Council official told CQ’s John T. Bennett Thursday. “White House officials have concluded they have ample legal authorities to continue conducting such military missions.”
IDF games it out. “The Israeli military is in the midst of its largest military exercise in nearly two decades, focusing on a potential war with Hezbollah,” writes FP’s Rhys Dubin. “Held in the north of the country, the roughly two-week drill – dubbed ‘The Light of Grain’ – comes amid rising tension along the Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia, has maintained a presence for decades.”
Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to email@example.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.
Navy. “No matter how tough our operating environment, or how strained our budget, we shouldn’t be and cannot be colliding with other ships and running aground.” — Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on Thursday to review the recent spate of ship collisions in Pacific Command. Observers and Members of Congress have offered various explanations for the incidents, many of them related to tight budgets and high operational demand.
China. Chinese authorities are tightening regulations on religion in the country, subjecting faith groups to new scrutiny and regulations in the name of “maintaining legality, curbing illegality, blocking extremism, resisting infiltration and attacking crime.”
DACA. The Pentagon says there are “less than 900” recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status currently serving in the U.S. military and wondering whether they’ll be subject to deportation after President Trump’s pledge to rescind the program after six months. Many DACA recipients are serving in the military through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, a program that allows immigrants with critical skills into the service. The Defense Department is considering a proposal to end the program.
Social media propaganda. Russian fake social media accounts during the 2016 presidential campaign may not have been limited just to Facebook. An investigation by The New York Times and cybersecurity firm FireEye found that hundreds of fake Twitter accounts which appear to be linked to Russian intelligence pushing anti-Hillary Clinton stories. The accounts represent a mixture of bots and legitimate accounts taken over by hackers, some of them purchased on the cybercrime black market.
Foreign fighters. Eight teachers and four children from the Ibnu Mas‘ud school in Indonesia have all traveled to the Middle East to fight with the Islamic State, according to a Reuters investigation. The wire service uncovered a child from the school as young as 11 years old leaving Indonesia to joint the Islamic State in Syria.
Zapad. Russia and Western European countries are sparring over the size of Moscow’s upcoming Zapad military exercises in Belarus. Russia says the drills will feature only 12,700 but Western countries put the size of the exercises considerably higher at around 100,000 troops. The argument over size stems from an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) requirement that countries holding exercises with more than 13,000 troops be more transparent with other OSCE members about the events.
Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali told the BBC’s Persian language service that he has evidence that “Iran was providing arms and military equipment to the Taliban in western Afghanistan.” A spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry later tried to walk back the comments, saying that Lt. Gen. Yaftali had only “reports, not evidence about Iran’s involvement.”
Cargo. The Transportation Security Administration is requiring extra screening for cargo shipments from Turkey to the U.S. to “adequately address emerging threats to cargo and raise the baseline for global aviation security.”
Erdogan. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) cosponsored an amendment to block arms sales to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards after Turkish security guards assaulted demonstrators during Erdogan’s last visited to the United States. The Trump administration has already stalled a $1.2 million sale of firearms to Erdogan’s security detail.