Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

FP’s Situation Report: The mystery of the Malaysia Airlines jet

Ukraine leader to meet Obama; Gates: Russia won't loosen its grip on Crimea; Forbidden love in Afghanistan; McCaskill's meaty sexual assault bill; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Out of thin air: Three days later, it’s still extremely unclear if the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is an international security issue or a horrible tragedy. The NYT’s Thomas Fuller on Page One: "More than 48 hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished, the mysteries over its fate have only multiplied. The Beijing-bound plane made no distress call, officials said, and the Malaysian authorities suggested it might have even begun to turn back to Kuala Lumpur midflight before it disappeared. Despite an intensive international search in the waters along its scheduled route, there were no confirmed sightings of the plane’s wreckage. And electronic booking records showed that the two passengers who were traveling on stolen passports bought their tickets from the same Thai travel agency.

"The seeming security lapse, which Interpol publicly criticized, might have had nothing to do with what happened to the jet and its 239 passengers and crew. Investigators said they were ruling nothing out, including a catastrophic mechanical failure, pilot error, or both. But by late Sunday, the lack of answers – or even many clues – to the plane’s disappearance added to the misery of family members left behind." Read the rest here.

From the WaPo this morning: Debris may be from missing jet. The WaPo’s Simon Denyer and Chico Harlan: " The two-day, multi­nation search for a vanished Malaysia Airlines passenger jet has turned up unconfirmed debris but delivered few other clues about one of the most confounding aviation disasters in recent memory. Searchers via low-flying planes had spotted a rectangular, door-like object on Sunday and something that looked like a tail portion, but by Monday morning, authorities said their ships were unable to relocate both objects, Malaysian officials said at a Monday press conference." More here.

Rethinking black boxes: Why the plane can’t tell anyone where it is. The Guardian’s Stephen Trimble: "… In one of the most galling anachronisms of modern aviation technology, the "black box" that carries most if not all of the answers seems to have vanished, too. Depending on the location of the wreckage, it could be days, months or even years before anyone turns up the black box – which is usually orange – and there remains a remote possibility that the device and its precious recordings of audio and flight sensor data will never be found at all. The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society. Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner – perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport – still exists in the age of radio." More here.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of Situation Report, where we’re back in the saddle. And we thank in the extreme FP’s Dan Lamothe for sitting in for us for a few days. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. Like what you see? Please tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. And one more thing: please do follow us @glubold.

Expect big changes in the Pentagon’s five year spending priorities. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "Just before Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, the US Air Force budget director, walked into the Pentagon briefing room on March 4, an aide slipped him a note. The paper said that if a reporter asked about the future of the service’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program, say that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James just made the decision to keep the program alive. Thirty-four minutes into his briefing on the 2015 budget proposal, in which CRH wasn’t mentioned, the question came. Martin responded: ‘Breaking news, we have made a decision to fund the CRH.’

"… It was an unprecedented break from the time-tested and thoroughly regimented briefings of the past. Decisions about funding or not funding multibillion-dollar procurement programs are typically finalized well in advance of such an important briefing. That’s not to mention that in a briefing by Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale earlier that afternoon, it was revealed that the CRH program would be delayed."

The bizarre moment summed up an odd two weeks in which the Defense Department struggled to explain its complicated 2015 budget proposal, sent to Congress on March 4.Reporters, budget analysts and lawmakers and their staffs were all left scratching their heads. It became clear as the week progressed that there would still be revisions to the Pentagon’s plans.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think there’s a disconnect between the public comments and the budget documents, and I’ll leave it at that." Read the rest here.

Also read Defense News’ editorial, "A Budget Without Clarity," here.

Meantime, the new head of Ukraine’s pro-Western government will meet with President Obama this week amid Russian defiance over Crimea. The WaPo’s Anthony Faiola and Carol Morello with a Kiev dateline: " The announcement of Wednesday’s meeting in Washington with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk came as pro-Russian forces extended their reach in Crimea, surrounding a border post in the far west and blocking Ukrainian TV broadcasts to the heavily Russian-speaking region, which lies more than 400 miles southeast of the Ukrainian capital. There were reports of more troop movements into Crimea, with officials in Kiev estimating that 18,000 pro-Russian forces had fanned out across the region, which is about the size of Massachusetts." Read the rest here. ICYMI, Bob Gates was on Fox on Sunday talking Ukraine. FP’s Dana Stuster: "The Obama administration is struggling to find a way of forcing Moscow to remove its troops from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, but former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said [Sunday] it is already too late to prevent the contested region from being absorbed into Russia.

Gates, to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday: "I do not think that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand."

Wallace, who pressed Gates to clarify: "You think Crimea is gone?"

Gates: "I do."

Read the rest of what Stuster wrote based on the Sunday shows here.

Read Leon Aron’s argument on FP about why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. (he didn’t do it just because he could, he did it because he had to, Aron argues). Read that piece here.

From this morning’s White House readout of Obama’s talk with President Xi over Ukraine: "…The two leaders agreed on the fundamental importance of focusing on common interests and deepening practical cooperation to address regional and global challenges for the development of bilateral relations. In that context, they affirmed their shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.  The two leaders agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system.  The President noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference."  

Meanwhile, Chinese military spending continues to be a mystery. FP’s Issac Stone Fish:  "The People’s Liberation Army does not have a website. There is China Military Online, which boasts that it’s "approved by the Central Military Commission," (CMC) the 11-member body chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which oversees the PLA, and is the military’s "only news portal website." There are other Chinese news sites, like Chinamil, which hosts Liberation Daily, a newspaper put out by the PLA’s general political department, the shadowy department tasked with running the army’s political activities. And there’s a website for China’s Ministry of National Defense, an organ which is subordinate to the CMC, and which is nominally the public face of the PLA. But the world’s largest standing army, and the CMC which oversees it, has decided not to bother.

"On March 5, during an annual meeting of its legislature, Beijing announced that it is increasing its military budget by 12.2 percent, to a total of $131.6 billion in 2014. While still less than a third of the $496 billion that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed in February for the U.S. military in 2015, it still represents a significant expansion, even after two decades of double-digit growth in the PLA’s official budget. But few doubt that the grand total allocated to China’s military is yet higher, and many in the U.S. government wish they had more insight into the method to the darkness surrounding the PLA." More here.

Page One: Two Afghans share forbidden love. The NYT’s Rod Nordland in Bamian, Afghanistan:  "She is his Juliet and he is her Romeo, and her family has threatened to kill them both. Zakia is 18 and Mohammad Ali is 21, both the children of farmers in this remote mountain province. If they could manage to get together, they would make a striking couple. She dresses colorfully, a pink head scarf with her orange sweater, and collapses into giggles talking about him. He is a bit of a dandy, with a mop of upswept black hair, a white silk scarf and a hole in the side of his saddle-toned leather shoes. Both have eyes nearly the same shade, a startling amber.

"They have never been alone in a room together, but they have publicly declared their love for each other and their intention to marry despite their different ethnicities and sects. That was enough to make them outcasts, they said, marked for death for dishonoring their families – especially hers. Zakia has taken refuge in a women’s shelter here. Even though she is legally an adult under Afghan law, the local court has ordered her returned to her family. ‘If they get hold of me,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘they would kill me even before they get me home.’" Read the rest here.

Here’s the beef: Turns out, Claire McCaskill’s sexual assault bill is "meatier than advertised." The WaPo’s Melinda Henneberger: Sen. Claire McCaskill’s bill to overhaul – yes, overhaul – the way sexual-assault cases are handled in the military has routinely been described as more modest, conservative, watered-down and incremental than her Senate colleague Kirsten Gillibrand’s measure. The legislation pushed by Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which would have taken the prosecution of sex crimes in the military out of the chain of command and put it in the hands of military prosecutors, was narrowly defeated Friday.

"McCaskill’s bill is expected to pass Monday, a result widely seen as an affront to victims by a Congress that is still too male and overawed by military commanders to meaningfully challenge them. But occasionally the first draft of history is written by the losers, and that’s certainly the case for Gillibrand…" McCaskill, meanwhile, has just as clearly lost by winning, with far less attention paid to either her bill or her view.

"The supposed nothing-burger of the bill put forth by McCaskill (D-Mo.) would get rid of the "good soldier" defense that takes irrelevant factors such as the service record of the accused into account. In cases where there is a dual jurisdiction because the crime occurred off of a military base, the victim would get a say in whether the case would be handled in a civilian or military court. It would extend protections to students in service academies. And it would require that in every decision on every promotion in the military, that commander’s record on the handling of sexual-assault cases would have to be taken into account." Read the rest here.

Sinclair’s accuser was herself ambitious. The AP’s Jeffrey Collins and Michael Biesecker: "The Army captain who has accused Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair of sexually assaulting her during their three-year relationship was an ambitious soldier with plans to make the military her career, much like the boss she loved and admired. Stirred by the 9/11 attacks to leave college and join the military, she signed up with the Army, learned the in-demand language of Arabic and showed a laser focus in trying to carve out a reputation as a soldier who could be counted on in the toughest of situations…

"Her credibility is central to the case. Is she a woman whose affair with a charismatic and approachable superior ended with him forcing her to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her and her family? Or is she, as Sinclair’s lawyers have portrayed, a jilted lover who fabricated allegations of sexual assault when Sinclair refused to leave his wife?" Read the rest here.


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.