The Cable

Situation Report: Chinese drones and Russian paranoia; Congress angry over anthrax; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson Let’s recap. With Iraq taking up so much of the national security bandwidth lately, some pretty significant events in Ukraine, Russia, and in the South China Sea haven’t received the attention they deserve in SitRep. But with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Asia this week for the Shangri-La Dialogue ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Let’s recap. With Iraq taking up so much of the national security bandwidth lately, some pretty significant events in Ukraine, Russia, and in the South China Sea haven’t received the attention they deserve in SitRep. But with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Asia this week for the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore — coming hard on the heels of the release of a new Chinese defense doctrine — it may be time to look beyond the killing grounds of Iraq for just a moment.

Consider, for example, the newly crowded skies. One of the biggest bits of news has been the first sighting of a massive new Chinese long-range drone that is thought to be able to pick up and track stealthy aircraft at long range. The drone, first reported Thursday by Popular MechanicsJeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, had its maiden flight in February, and “could change the brewing arms race in the Asia Pacific.”

The double-bodied behemoth, with an estimated 40-meter wingspan, is packed with seven different radar systems and a variety of surveillance equipment to help it detect U.S. stealth aircraft like the F-35 fighter, B-2 bombers, and ships at long distances.

And to no one’s surprise, Beijing has been placing offensive weaponry on the artificial islands it’s been building in the South China Sea. We’ve already seen what look like air strips on some of the clumps of dirt hastily dumped on top of coral reefs, but the mobile artillery pieces that American intelligence have detected is something new.

While hardly a threat to any naval or air assets in the region, the guns are within range of nearby islands claimed by Vietnam, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes and Gordon Lubold, and their sheer symbolism carries some significant weight. With American surveillance planes flying nearby and U.S. Navy ships insisting on the right to transit close to the makeshift bits of land, the artillery pieces represent a small, but real, escalation of the game.

And now, Russia. President Vladimir Putin has signed a new law stating that the deaths of his soldiers carrying out his orders are now state secrets, FP’s Reid Standish reported Thursday. The move essentially seals the record on the deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine. It’s believed between 200 and 800 Russian troops have been killed across their border since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to various estimates by Russian opposition groups.

The Intercept’s Sharon Weinberger got hold of a batch of emails between Russian defense industry bigwigs and government officials that show how Moscow is subverting international sanctions to buy high-tech military equipment.

Putin also declared Thursday that the recent indictment of FIFA officials by the U.S. Justice Department is a conspiracy of the United States to take the 2018 World Cup away from Russia. Video  obtained by the Associated Press quoted Putin as saying, “this clearly is yet another attempt by the U.S. to spread its jurisdiction to other countries.”

Shipping news. But back home we have our own set of issues to work through. Anthrax is now one of them.

Capitol Hill is demanding answers from the Pentagon after the a U.S. Army laboratory in Utah shipped potentially live anthrax samples across the country to labs in nine different states. And angry letters are being fired off. “This incident represents a serious breach of trust in the United States Army’s obligation to keep our citizens and service members safe,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh.

In a separate letter, reports McClatchy’s James Rosen, a bipartisan group of House members wrote Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the shipments “raise serious safety concerns” about the way the military handles “dangerous pathogens.”

The blunder also comes just as former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge are wrapping up a study on the failings and concerns in U.S. biodefense systems. The panel, sponsored by the Hudson Institute, will release its findings this fall, reports FP’s Paul McLeary.

And talk about good timing. While Washington struggles to answer what happened with its anthrax shipments, the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons boasted Thursday that 90 percent of all of the declared chemical weapons stocks in the world had been verified by the group as destroyed.

“This is a major milestone that shows we are well on the way to ridding the world of chemical weapons,” said OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu. Still, in Syria, activists have reported as many as 35 chlorine attacks by the government against civilian targets since March.

This is the final Situation Report for the month of May, which doesn’t actually mean much, other than it’s about to get uncomfortably warm in Washington. Pass along any tips, suggestions, news, events, rumors, or big-name job changes to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Eastern Europe

Elsewhere in the region, tensions continue to rise. Agence France-Press reported on three former Soviet satellite states — Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia — that are looking into a joint air defense system. “‘We plan to analyze the possibility of developing a medium-range air defense system to strengthen our defense capabilities,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told reporters. “External threats lead us to cooperate more.”

Islamic State

The U.S.-trained commander of Tajikistan’s elite police force, Gulmurod Khalimov, appears to have defected to the Islamic State. In a video, he vowed to “bring jihad to Russia and the U.S. as he brandished a cartridge belt and sniper rifle,” Reuters reports.

Iraq

The Iraqi Army is dealing with shortfalls in its fight with the Islamic State that might sound familiar to American ears: A dearth of drones, lacking intelligence on the enemy’s networks and counter-IED technologies, and no clear narrative to push back against the group’s messaging. FP’s Sean Naylor gives us a take-away from the biggest Special Forces conference of the year in Tampa, Fla., and tells us that the complaints about these shortfalls from the Special Operations community is like deja vu all over again.

The slogan “At Your Service Iraq” is the result of a new rebranding effort by the Shiite paramilitaries fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. The change is in response to criticisms that their old name was “overly sectarian,” the Lebanon Daily Star reports.

Japan

For the National Interest, Emily Chen provides an in-depth analysis of Japan’s new security bills, and the surrounding controversy.

Military tech

Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg gives readers some detail on new plans to begin developing four different Army vehicles for the future. “They range from a parachute-droppable light truck for Airborne soldiers to a scout car, a light tank, and a new infantry fighting vehicle to carry heavy troops into the teeth of enemy fire,” he writes.

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