The Cable

Situation Report: B-1 Bombers to Australia; Carter appoints his guys; Israel finds odd allies; and more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson Well, that’s news. Washington has big plans for stationing advanced weaponry in Australia, senior Defense Department officials say, in what would be a military first for the two close allies. During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the Defense Department’s Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Well, that’s news. Washington has big plans for stationing advanced weaponry in Australia, senior Defense Department officials say, in what would be a military first for the two close allies.

During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the Defense Department’s Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear said that in addition to the movement of U.S. Marines and Army units around the region, “we will be placing additional Air Force assets in Australia as well, including B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft.”

The plans come just as Washington considers sending ships and aircraft to South China Sea to assert the right of free passage and challenge Beijing’s recent island building spree there, including airstrips in a bid to expand its scope of influence.

Requests for comment to the U.S. Pacific Command and Pacific Air Forces have not been returned, but stationing bombers in Australia is not an entirely new idea. Back in 2013, then-commander of the Pacific Air Forces Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle (who is now Commander of Air Combat Command) floated the idea, but nothing came of it.

But now U.S. officials are adamant. “We claim the right of innocent passage in such areas, and we exercise that right regularly, both in the South China Sea and globally,” Shear said. Earlier in the day, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said that “international law does not recognize man-made islands as an extension of the mainland, and in this case, nor do we.”

“No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty,” Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Senate committee.

The new crew. We wouldn’t exactly call them “fresh faces,” but if the Senate signs off on their nominations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff will have three new members come this fall. We’ve already tracked the nomination of Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but now we have two more: Gen. Mark Milley as Army chief of staff and Adm. John Richardson as chief of Naval operations.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s fingerprints are all over the nominations. Richardson is the top nuclear officer in the Navy, and has been plucked three years into an eight-year assignment with the Energy Department to take over the sea service. Remember, Carter is a former nuclear weapons analyst who has promised to make modernizing the nation’s aging nuclear weapons infrastructure a key part of his tenure. And Carter praised his work with Milley when the latter was the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan in 2013, and Carter was second-in-command at the Pentagon.

Of note: Reporters were told Wednesday morning that Carter would make a few brief remarks introducing the nominees and neither he nor the nominees would take questions, which is becoming the norm in his Pentagon. Earlier this month, as an example, the secretary also bolted after making a few brief remarks in announcing the rollout of the Defense Department’s latest sexual assault report. But this time the AP’s Robert Burns – a gentlemanly institution at the Pentagon – called out, “Mr. Secretary!” to Carter as he was about to walk away from the podium. For a second the possibility hung out there that Carter might actually have an unscripted moment, but he was quickly swallowed in a crush of military brass and moved out. Carter has only held two press conferences since taking over in February.

All together now! The Obama administration is huddling with senior leaders from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations this week in Washington, and whenever a meeting like this occurs, it’s a sure bet that a series of expedited weapons shipments and foreign military sales announcements will follow.

So, why isn’t Israel protesting the possibility of more weapons being shipped to its neighbors?

One reason, FP’s John Hudson writes, is that is that the Obama administration is being careful about how it assists Gulf allies in facing the Iranian threat without overstepping Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, “a calculus the executive branch is required by law to take into account as it licenses the transfer of weapons to Middle East governments.” Another reason for Israel’s “relaxed temperament,” Hudson reports, is Israel’s “newfound kinship with Arab countries who share its concerns about Iran’s rise in the region.” As David Ottaway, a Gulf expert at the Wilson Center, noted, “The Israelis have cared less about the deals happening this week because there’s a feeling in Israel that they now have an undeclared ally in the GCC against Iran.”

Yoda’s back! Sort of. When the 93-year-old Andrew Marshall retired from his perch as the Defense Department’s top futurist at the Office of Net Assessment in January, a huge hole as left in the building’s, but also in conspiracy theorizing.

But the drought appears to be over. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe on Wednesday reported that Ash Carter has picked a younger Yoda – if no less brainy — to fill Marshall’s shoes.

Jim Baker, a retired Air Force colonel who currently serves as a top adviser to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, is being tasked with doing things a little differently. “His selection reflects Carter’s desire to shift the focus of the office, which has concentrated on long-term threats to the United States that were often overlooked by a Pentagon consumed by more immediate concerns.” Jaffe writes.

Welcome to a very special edition of the Situation Report, where we celebrate the accomplishment of making it to Thursday! Pass along your notes, tips, and events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Who’s Where When?

At 8:30 a.m. a group of think tankers from the Center for a New American Security, American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies speak at at the Senate Russell office building about defense reform. Also speaking are Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chairman, House Committee on Armed Services, and Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, Ranking Member, House Committee on Armed Services. 10:00 a.m. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work speaks in the Pentagon courtyard at the first-ever DoD Lab Day showing off some of the leap-ahead tech the Defense Department is investing in. 12:00 p.m. Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily and Pakistan’s Defence and Army Attaché Brigadier Chaudhary Sarfraz Ali speak at The Potomac Institute about combating terrorism.

Middle East

A senior Israeli intelligence official says Egypt is buying the Russian S-300 ground-to-air defense system. Dan Williams reports for Reuters. Neither Egypt nor Russia has confirmed the sale.

The Lebanon Daily Star writes that Hezbollah and the Syrian army have gained control of the highest mountain in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border. Syrian state TV thanked the Syrian army and “the Lebanese resistance.”

Europe

Authorities in the Czech Republic blocked a shipment of “sensitive technology usable for nuclear enrichment” to Iran after “false documentation raised suspicions,” Louis Charbonneau and Robert Muller write for Reuters.

Estonian officials say that they have a pretty solid plan for dealing with any “little green men” – the moniker Western officials have given to Russian special forces operatives working undercover who sprung up in the early days of the Ukraine crisis last year — according to the country’s chief of defence. “They will be shot,” reports the Financial Times.

Afghanistan

At least one American and two Indians were killed in an attack on a guest house in Kabul Wednesday evening. The attack came after “gunmen opened fire at a meeting of Muslim clerics in the southern province of Helmand, killing at least seven people, police said,” writes Mirwais Harooni for Reuters.

Congress

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain on Wednesday rejected a request “for changes in federal law to let the two largest U.S. arms makers use more Russian rocket engines to compete for military satellite launches against privately held SpaceX,” Andrea Shalal reports for Reuters.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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