The Cable

Security Brief: McMaster on the Way Out? Putin Touts New Nukes

Mounting reports point toward National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster's departure from the White House.

H.R. McMaster, national security advisor, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on February 2, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images)
H.R. McMaster, national security advisor, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on February 2, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson-Pool/Getty Images)

McMaster out? If the mounting reports of his imminent departure are to be believed — and they appear to be reaching a critical mass — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s days in the White House are numbered. NBC reported last week that he may leave his post as early as next month, and several outlets have now reported that the Pentagon is looking for a follow-on posting.

With the benefit of hindsight, McMaster’s days in the White House were numbered from the start. Taking over after the chaotic month-long tenure of Michael Flynn, McMaster has been credited with at least restoring a sense of bare normalcy to the National Security Council.

At the same time, McMaster has been undermined in the eyes of President Trump by infighting among his national security advisers. According to a revealing look at McMaster’s tenure as national security adviser in the Wall Street Journal, the Army general has found himself at odds with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who have slow-rolled Trump’s demands for more aggressive military action. While McMaster has aligned himself with Trump’s hawkish views on some key issues — especially North Korea — other parts of the defense bureaucracy have refused to fall in line.

According to the Journal, McMaster may step down as national security adviser and receive his fourth star with a posting as head of European Command or Northern Command.

H.R. probably won’t find this funny. Trump joked over the weekend about the constant staff churn. “So many people have been leaving the White House it’s been exciting and invigorating. … I like chaos,” he said during remarks before the annual Gridiron Dinner. “So, who’s going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller, or Melania? That’s terrible. But you love me right, honey? She said, behave!”

Paging Dr. Strangelove. President Vladimir Putin made major headlines last week with his announcement that Russia has developed several new nuclear weapons, including an intercontinental nuclear cruise missile, an autonomous nuclear torpedo, and a giant liquid-fueled ICBM.

Amid skepticism that Russia has really developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile — a concept the United States explored and abandoned during the Cold War — TASS reported over the weekend that Russian scientists have completed trials of the tiny nuclear power plant that is supposed to grant the cruise missile “unlimited range.”

Pentagon officials are skeptical on the cruise missile claim and have told Fox News that the missile has crashed during testing in the Arctic.

The announcement comes in the run-up to Russia’s presidential election scheduled for March 18 — a contest Putin is sure to win — and the claims have at least European defense officials reacting furiously. NATO officials called Putin’s threats “unacceptable and counter-productive.”

Writing for Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Lewis outlines the history that has led us to this new phase of competition between the United States and Russia, marked by increased investments on both sides in nuclear weapons.

Welcome to this morning’s edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your tips, comments, and questions to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com. A correction from last week: The gas pipeline that Afghan officials broke ground on, and was featured in last week’s newsletter, begins in Turkmenistan, not Tajikistan. Thanks to Bob M. for catching the error.

Trade war! With his announcement last week that he plans to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, President Donald Trump sparked “outraged threats of reprisals from countries around the world, howls of dismay from Republican lawmakers, and fears of massive job losses across the rest of the U.S. economy,” FP’s Keith Johnson reports.

Blood in the water. The Trump administration dispute over whether to impose those tariffs has opened a bitter divide among White House advisers. Axios reports on a bitter January debate in the Oval Office on the issue: Economic adviser Gary Cohn reportedly got so exasperated with his isolationist opponents — principally Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and adviser Peter Navarro — that he threw up his hands and asked the two: “Where are your facts?”

Missile defense. The Trump administration is considering a revised missile defense strategy that would “address certain threats from Russia and China,” according to the Washington Post. Such a strategy would shift America’s missile defense posture away from focusing only on rogue states such as North Korea, the paper reports.

APT 28 strikes again: German officials admitted last week that the prolific Russian hacking group penetrated the computer systems belonging to the country’s defense and foreign ministries. APT 28 played a key role in the Russian campaign to meddle in the American election. The exact scope of the attack remains unclear, but this isn’t the first time APT 28 has targeted the German government. It is thought to have penetrated the lower house of parliament in 2015.

Whack-a-mole. The Trump administration keeps slapping new sanctions on North Korea, and with every new measure Pyongyang comes up with a novel strategy. FP’s Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce report that North Korea’s merchant fleet has developed innovative new ways to circumvent the sanctions regime, leaving American officials scrambling to close the net around North Korea’s illicit economy.  

What Global Engagement Center? The State Department was allocated $120 million dollars to fight Russian meddling in foreign elections, but according to a damning New York Times report it has spent none of that money. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, entrusted to execute that mission, remains mired in its old counterterrorism role and none of its 23 analysts speak Russian. Meanwhile, American intelligence officials are warning that Russian operatives are likely to once more try to sow divisions through its online tools ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Meanwhile… Outgoing NSA Director Michael Rogers told Congress last week that the United States has not imposed a sufficient cost on Moscow to deter it from meddling in future elections and added that he has not received orders from the White House to strike back at Russia. “President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity,’” Rogers said. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

Bibi in Washington. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington this week for meetings today with President Donald Trump and an address before AIPAC on Tuesday. Though the meeting presents a chance for the two leaders to present a united front against Iran, the visit isn’t expected to generate any major headlines and was described by one American official as a “routine check-in.” But for Bibi, the visit offers a respite from his legal troubles at home, where he faces corruption allegations that threaten his political survival. And things aren’t looking good: A key Bibi aide is likely to turn state’s witness, Haaretz reports.

‘Not Trump’s lawyers.’ French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian arrived in Tehran on Monday to address the Iranian nuclear deal, the Iranian economy, and concerns about Iranian ballistic missile development and its activities in the region. “We’re not going to be Donald Trump’s envoys or Iran’s defense lawyers,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters. “We have our own concerns and will talk to the different sensibilities of the Iranian system to get our point across.”  

Aid to Ghouta. Amid continued shelling from Syrian government positions, an aid convoy entered the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Monday, the BBC reports. Syrian government officials reportedly removed 70 percent of the supplies, including some medical equipment, from the trucks, in an apparent attempt to prevent treatment of rebel forces in the area.

Tillerson goes to Africa. Trump might think the entire continent is “a shithole,” but there’s a lot riding on U.S. relations with Africa these days: counter-terrorism, burgeoning trade relationships, and brewing humanitarian crises. Rex Tillerson will make his first trip as Secretary of State to the continent this week, making stops in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria, from March 6 to 13. If Tillerson has to mend fences after his boss’s alleged comments ragging on Africa, he may also have a bit of personal baggage to overcome. In his past life as head of oil giant Exxon Mobil, he partnered with some of the most controversial and corrupt governments on the continent, including Chad and Equatorial Guinea.

From Seoul to Pyongyang. Riding a wave of relative warmth between the two countries after the Winter Olympics, a high-ranking South Korean delegation arrived in Pyongyang on Monday and is reported to be meeting with leader Kim Jong Un. The tete-a-tete marks the first meeting between Kim and a delegation from the South since he took power in 2011.

Mad-man theory. President Donald Trump raised the possibility of talks with North Korea over the weekend, albeit wrapped in a pretty great joke. “I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un, I just won’t. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine,” he told the Gridiron Dinner.

Trump Force One. President Trump looks to be one step close to getting a new plane. According to Fox News, he’s struck an “informal” deal with Boeing worth $3.9 billion for two new presidential jets.  

The Cairo connection. North Korean officials have used the country’s embassy in Cairo as an arms trading outpost, servicing clients in Africa in the Middle East with missile and other military technology. Per a new New York Times report, American officials are getting rather fed up with that scheme and are pushing Cairo to crack down on North Korean arms dealing from its embassy on an island in the Nile river.  

Bring NATO back from the dead. Two senators are reviving a defunct Senate group on NATO to boost congressional support for the alliance while President Donald Trump continues to downplay Russian election meddling. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) announced last week on Capitol Hill they were reviving the Senate NATO Observers Group, a bipartisan network of senators that disbanded in 2007.

The group may not be a game changer; NATO retains widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and European allies are no longer quite as fearful Trump will abandon the alliance. But the group could help senators keep up with developments in Brussels so they can react quickly in case NATO needs new funding, more support from the U.S. military to counter Russia and other threats, or readies to add a new member. For the latter, the Senate is key; admitting a new member country to NATO means ratifying a new treaty, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. No word yet on whether the senators plan to keep the Senate NATO Observer Group’s delightful acronym, SNOG.

Mueller’s hit list. Axios got a hold of a subpoena sent to a witness questioned by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a document that provides a rare glimpse at the interests of the former FBI director now probing President Donald Trump and his coterie of aides.  

HPSCI goes off the deep end. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the House investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election may be nearing its ignominious end. Republican lawmakers on the committee — having watched their chairman do President Donald Trump’s political dirty work — report that the partisan rancor on the committee has grown so bad that it may be time to pack up and go home.  

So much for a softened Russia policy. The Trump administration tentatively approved selling Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, weapons that could be used against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. The $47 million deal would send 210 missiles and 37 launch units to the Ukrainians, the Washington Post reports.  

DARPA heads east. Steven Walker, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency confirmed to reporters last week that he visited Ukraine to assess what the Pentagon’s top technologists can do there. “We have started several projects with the Ukraine, mostly in the information space,” Walker said. DARPA is “not providing them weapons or anything like that.” When asked if he could be any more specific, he said simply, “no.” Not mentioned? A previous director of DARPA has been working for the past two years for Ukroboronprom, the Ukrainian arms consortium.

Minority report in New Orleans. Predictive policing is about to become big business, and big data analytics firm Palantir is reportedly testing out its system in New Orleans. According to the The Verge, Palantir has been running a predictive policing system for New Orleans on a pro bono basis.  

Turn out the lights. The computer security firm Dragos — one of the more respected players in the field — has a new report out that summarizes the state of play among hacking groups targeting industrial control systems. The firm has identified five distinct groups attacking or carrying out reconnaissance of industrial systems.

The Wasp gets a F-35. A detachment of F-35Bs arrived aboard the amphibious assault ship the USS Wasp on Monday, “marking the first time the aircraft has deployed aboard a U.S. Navy ship and with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Indo-Pacific,” according to a release form the 7th Fleet. The arrival of the versatile fighter jets represents a major step forward for the Marine Corps and the troubled development of the jet.

Vinson in Hanoi. The USS Carl Vinson will make a historic port call today when it arrives in Hanoi, the first time an American aircraft carrier has visited Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War. The visit comes as the United States seeks to win allies and maintain its strategic relationships in the region as China attempts to assert its influence more forcefully.

Beware your creditor. China’s massive investment spree as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative” has left eight countries dangerously dependent on China, according to a new report. These countries include Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Blue water navy. As part of its huge military modernization program, China may be speeding up efforts to build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In a since amended press release spotted by Defense News, “China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, or CSIC, said the shipbuilding group will redouble efforts to achieve technological breakthroughs in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, new nuclear-powered submarines, quieter conventionally powered submarines, underwater artificial intelligence-based combat systems and integrated networked communications systems.”  

What are China’s AI ambitions? Amid heightened fears over Chinese investments in artificial intelligence, the Wall Street Journal has a fascinating deep-dive on Beijing’s investments in the field and how a new arms race is shaping up between Washington and Beijing. China may be surpassing the United States in key areas, the Journal reports, and American officials are scrambling to catch up and assess the nature of the gap.

Chinese military spending. A spokesman for China’s National People’s Congress dodged a question sunday about how much the country expects to spend on its military in the coming year, Bloomberg reports. The figure may still be released and has served as an important indicator in years past of China’s military ambitions.    

Chinese civil-military relations. China’s military said it supports a proposal to scrap a constitutional limit on the number of terms a president can serve. The PLA is a powerful institution, and its delegates comprise the single largest bloc in the National People’s Congress. Military support for the proposal virtually guarantees its passage into law later this month during the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature — not that there was much doubt about its passing in the first place. It looks like Xi Jinping is going to remain in power a long time.

Lasers to fight drone swarms. On a $150 million contract with the U.S. Navy, Lockheed Martin is now developing a laser system designed to “dazzle” a swarm of drones. The system, known as HELIOS, is the first of its kind and will also be able to destroy small boats.

The end for DIUX? Last month, Raj Shah, the head of of the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost, known as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUX, announced he was leaving. The office set, up by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, was designed to work with Silicon Valley firms and other fast-moving technology companies. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has pledged his support for DIUX, and so has Mike Giffen, the newly appointed undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, but no replacement for Shah has been named yet.

The head of DARPA, an agency that’s never been known for playing nice with other upstart technology offices, didn’t exactly heap praise on DIUX. “The idea of creating DIUX to plug into what the commercial sector is doing was a good idea,” Walker told reporters last week. “I don’t think that’s ever been DARPA’s problem.”

And what about the SCO? The other Ash Carter technology initiative, the Strategic Capabilities Office, is also without a director, since its prior chief, William Roper, decamped for the Pentagon in January to take a senior position in the Air Force. The SCO is billed as an office that focuses on current military needs, whereas DARPA focuses on future “game changing” technologies (The SCO, weirdly. lives in DARPA’s basement). Without a clear champion in the current Pentagon, however, the SCO might be soon to go.

Yemen on Capitol Hill. Amid mounting casualties and a humanitarian disaster, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced a resolution questioning U.S. support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen.

Speaking of which. Saudi officials announced a major shakeup last week that targeted senior defense officials. The firing of military chief of staff Gen. Abdulrahman bin Saleh al-Bunyan was described as a long-planned move, but may reflect dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia’s troubled intervention in Yemen.  

Skunk Works. Lockheed Martin announced a new head for the head of its famed development shop, Skunk Works. Jeff Babione, who currently oversees the F-35 program, will be the new head of Lockheed’s advanced development programs, Defense News reports.

Space Corps? The leaders of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee remain deeply frustrated with what they view as the Air Force’s failure to tackle threats to the United States in space. In an appearance last week, Reps. Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, who have pushed a proposal to organize a so-called Space Corps, ripped into the Air Force. “The Air Force needs to come out of denial and work with instead of fight us and keep us from meddling in this issue,” Rogers said, according to Space News.

Space sensors, please. The head of U.S. Strategic Command believes it is taking far too long for the United States to field ballistic missile defense sensors in space, according to Defense News. “I think time is ready, and we ought to move forward now,” Gen. John Hyten said last week.

Global Strike Command has a new boss. Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray has been tapped as the next head of U.S. Global Strike Command, according to Defense News. Currently the deputy commander at U.S. European Command, Ray is a former T-38, B-52, and B-1 pilot.

France targeted in Burkina Faso attack. The French embassy in Ouagadougou, the West African country’s capital, was targeted on March 2 in what officials say was a terrorist attack. The assailants also hit the army headquarters the same day. Eight security personnel and around 80 civilians were injured during the coordinated attacks. An al Qaeda affiliate in Mali claimed responsibility for the attack.

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

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