The Cable

SitRep: Defense Budget Gets a Boost; Trump Haunts NATO

Trump budget document foresees huge budget increase for Pentagon.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a working session with mayors in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a working session with mayors in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Dan De Luce, and Jenna McLaughlin

Guns and butter. The Trump administration wants to significantly increase defense spending in 2019, boosting funding for the Pentagon to $716 billion, a 7 percent increase on last year, according to a proposed budget described by the Washington Post.

The proposal comes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has described a need to focus on the threat posed by countries like Russia and China and countering North Korean belligerence. The budget would allocate funds for a wide-ranging modernization effort, including the American nuclear weapons force, just as the United States’s major adversaries are overhauling their forces.

If approved, the budget would represent a major victory for the Pentagon over budget hawks within the Trump administration and pour resources into an American military emerging from a decade and a half of sustained wartime deployments.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump is expected to reiterate his promise to “rebuild our military” White House officials told reporters over the weekend.

Haunting NATO. Davos is over, but generals, diplomats and policy wonks will be gathering soon in Munich for what many consider the world’s most important security conference. And Trump will be casting a long shadow over the event, FP’s Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer report.

Although NATO allies are relieved the Trump administration has taken concrete steps to bolster the alliance’s presence in Eastern Europe, the president’s rhetoric has shaken their faith about Washington’s commitment. “The transatlantic relationship may be scarred for a long time to come,” Alexander Vershbow, former NATO deputy secretary-general and veteran U.S. diplomat, told FP.

Exclusive in FP. Murray Waas reports that “President Donald Trump pressed senior aides last June to devise and carry out a campaign to discredit senior FBI officials after learning that those specific employees were likely to be witnesses against him as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to two people directly familiar with the matter.”

With Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating an obstruction of justice case against Trump, the effort by the president adds new detail about the extent to which he has attempted to impede the probe.

Trump lawyer John Dowd called the account of administration officials interviewed by FP “flat-out wrong” and disputed a description of his conversations with the president. “You don’t know me,” Dowd told Waas. “You don’t how I lawyer, and you don’t know what I communicated to the president and what I did not.”

Welcome to this Monday morning edition of SitRep, in which we marvel over the fact that a fitness app has revealed the locations of U.S. Special Operations bases. Welcome to this brave new world.

Send your tips, ideas, questions, and comments to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com. We are continuing to publish on a weekly basis — and let us know what you think of the change and what you’d like to see.

This is a disaster. A global map of user activity posted by fitness app Strava has revealed a staggering amount of data about the locations of military bases around the world. The map provides an aggregate view of users jogging and cycling routes from 2015 to 2017, and displays the accumulated location data of servicemembers working out in bases using gadgets such as a Fitbit. The data also appears to include maps of supply and patrol routes. This intelligence disaster may be even worse: It may be possible to discover a supposedly anonymous user’s real identity by examining segment data.   

More money, more problems. The Trump administration is expected to make known today its list of oligarchs with close ties to the Putin regime, as was required in the sanctions law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump this past August. These are not sanctioned individuals, but a list of names, complete with net worths and details of how they are related to the Kremlin, all of whom could be sanctioned at some point and could have their access to Western financial institutions impacted.

Hacking Cozy Bear. Dutch intelligence gained extraordinary access to the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear by penetrating their computer infrastructure, according to a joint report from the Dutch TV program Nieuwsuur and daily de Volkskrant. Hackers working on behalf of the Dutch state even broke into the security cameras at a Cozy Bear facility, capturing photos of likely Russian operatives.

Officials in Amsterdam provided explosive intelligence from this access to their American counterparts, who are examining how the group penetrated the Democratic National Committee leaked their stolen data online. The material has reportedly made its way to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Reading between the lines of the Nieuwsuur and de Volkskrant expose, there’s good reason to be skeptical of this story, but if it’s correct, it may represent a not so subtle attempt by Dutch officials to remind their American allies of the value of their intelligence partnership.

Nationalizing 5G? Axios reported on Sunday that Trump administration officials are considering a surprising proposal: a “federal takeover of a portion of the nation’s mobile network to guard against China.” The reported plan would nationalize the U.S. 5G network, an unprecedented government intervention into the mobile market.

War has to end eventually. Russian officials will convene a two-day conference in Sochi today aimed at brokering an end to the seven-year Syrian civil war. Key opposition groups are boycotting the effort, considered a move by Moscow to firmly establish itself as a power broker in the region.

Contradictions aplenty. As negotiators convene in Sochi, the Turkish offensive in northwestern Syria continues apace. Turkish military officials said Sunday that they have “neutralized” 579 YPG and Islamic State militants, Hurriyet reports. The Turkish offensive has targeted Kurdish forces nominally allied with the United States and has exposed yet another massive rift between Turkey and the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, says he has no plans to withdraw American forces from the northern Syria of Manbij, as Turkey has demanded.

Bloodshed in Kabul. A Taliban bombing of a crowded street in Kabul left at least 95 dead and 158 wounded. The attack targeted a hospital and a busy shopping street in the Afghan capital, which has seen a resurgence in high-profile attacks in recent days. The latest bloodshed comes on the heels of a decision by the Trump administration to suspend military aid to Pakistan for not taking sufficient measures to crack down on Islamist militant groups.

An interesting time to retire. Jim Wolfe, the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, is retiring at the end of the month after more than 30 years of work on the Hill, a committee spokesperson confirmed. Among other things, Wolfe worked on the Senate’s investigation of enhanced interrogation and rendition, colloquially known as “the torture report. His departure comes at an uncommonly busy time for his committee, which is conducting a historic review of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It’s unclear why he is retiring at this time.

New Russia sanctions targets. Washington slapped financial sanctions on 21 people and nine companies tied the Russian-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. The newly sanctioned entities include 11 separatist officials in eastern Ukraine and several Russian officials.

Mattis in Vietnam. The shadow of the Vietnam War hung over Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a two day visit to the country, the Washington Post reports. Mattis discussed possible areas of cooperation with his Vietnamese counterparts, as he tries to build U.S. alliances to counter Chinese influence in the region.

Oh, and by the way. Just last week the Russian defense minister visited Vietnam amid the southeast Asian country’s ongoing efforts to modernize its military.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative. On paper, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature grand strategy, the BRI, is purely economic. But in reality, it’s intended to deliver security benefits for China, argues Joel Wuthrow in testimony he gave in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last week. These include securing energy supply routes and subduing restive border regions — as well as increasing Beijing’s leverage over its neighbors. Read Wuthrow’s full testimony here.

Japan also wants to be a player. In another attempt to counter Chinese influence, Japan will provide naval assistance to countries in the Indian Ocean. The first recipients will be Djibouti and Sri Lanka — two places with a Chinese military presence.

The most beautiful fridge you ever saw. Air Force One is getting new refrigerators and the cost to taxpayers will come to a cool $24 million, according to the Washington Post. Boeing won the lucrative contract, which calls for the replacement of the original units installed on the place in 1990.

The new Mt. Gox. A major Japanese cryptocurrency met an ignominious end last week, when officials with Coincheck revealed that hackers had stolen more than $530 million in virtual money. The hack comes amid spiking interest in cryptocurrencies and is the latest in a string of similar debacles for the nascent technology.  

Spying in space. Satellites belonging to foreign government have approached those belonging to the French government in an apparent effort to gather intelligence, France joint space commander told French lawmakers, according to Defense News. “Strategies of contestation and denial of access is taking on new forms,” Air Force Gen. Jean-Pascal Breton said.

And for context. This neat interactive graph shows how China is swiftly catching up to Russia and the United States in terms of civil and military satellites in space.

Army missileers. The army is putting together a new strategy for its air-and-missile defense forces that attempts to addresses concepts of “multidomain battle, Defense News reports. The document is due out this summer.  

A bit of good news for the F-35. The Italian Air Force took delivery of the first F-35B assembled outside of the United States.

And a bit of bad news. The Pentagon’s top weapons tester said in a report released Wednesday that the modernization plan for the F-35 is highly unrealistic and said the jet is unlikely to meet key deadlines for wrapping up its development phase, Defense News reports.

Meanwhile in Japan. F-35s deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in Japan have deployed without radar reflectors, which means the jets are taking advantage of their full stealth capabilities. The plane geeks over at the Aviationist spotted the subtle change in the fighter jet’s kit, and it indicates the U.S. forces in the region are preparing to use the full range of their military capabilities amid rising tensions with North Korea.

So much for stealth. A new GAO report has identified possible flaws in transponders used by the F-22, which could undermine the fighter jet’s stealth capabilities.

The Warthog lives. Air Force officials aren’t ready to kill off the A-10 Warthog just yet, Defense News reports. Pentagon officials will be asking Congress for funding to replace wings on the jets, though the exact number of the close-air support planes will survive remains to be seen.  

GBU-57 upgrade. The U.S. Air Force deployed an upgraded version of its GBU-57 bunker busting bomb to be carried by the B-2 stealth bomber. The new weapon, said to provide better performance against underground and fortified targets, could be used as part of an American strike on North Korea.

North Korea sanctions. American officials unveiled new sanctions last week on a slew of North Korean companies, ships, and its oil ministry, in the latest attempt by the Trump administration to rein in a newly aggressive Pyongyang.    

Let’s play blackjack. Russian President Vladimir Putin inked an order for new Tu-160 strategic bombers, a move that he said will strengthen the Russian nuclear triad. The sweep-wing, supersonic aircraft — also known as the Blackjack — has played a key role in harassing Russia’s neighbors in recent years.

The “Iron Man” suit. American Special Operations is seeking proposals for a so-called Iron Man suit, a tactical exoskeleton suit supposed to increase its user’s strength and mobility and integrate a suite of sensors, Defense News reports.

Hypersonic engine: DARPA has asked the rocket maker Orbital ATK to examine how to integrate turbine and hypersonic engines for a possible new engine design, Space Daily reports.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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