The Cable

Situation Report: Bombs over Libya; U.S. Senate debates defense spending; defense leaders hit the road; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson Let it drop. It’s unclear if the airstrike carried out Sunday by American F-15 warplanes in eastern Libya killed elusive jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and other members of a terrorist group with whom he was meeting, but the strike is evidence that the United States hasn’t completely taken its eyes ...

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Let it drop. It’s unclear if the airstrike carried out Sunday by American F-15 warplanes in eastern Libya killed elusive jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and other members of a terrorist group with whom he was meeting, but the strike is evidence that the United States hasn’t completely taken its eyes off the country.

The hit is the first time that the U.S. has admitted being active in Libya since an October 2013 raid by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force in Tripoli that captured Abu Anas al-Liby, a Libyan suspected of playing a key role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians.

But given the recent gains made by the Islamic State in Libya, it may not be the last.

Belmokhtar is best known for being the mastermind behind the bloody 2013 seizure of an Algerian gas plant that left 38 foreign hostages dead, including three Americans. And while he has long been on the radar of Western counterterrorism officials, he’s had a strange, checkered past with al Qaeda and its regional offshoots.

The banality of evil. Well before the attack on the Algerian gas plant, Belmokhtar was making news for being a problem employee. In 2013, reporters in Mali stumbled on a letter to him from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leadership, ripping Belmokhtar for not answering his phone, failing to fill out expense reports, and not carrying out any spectacular attacks. Belmokhtar promptly quit the group and set up his own squad, while throwing his lot in with core al Qaeda.

While there has been some back-and-forth about who Belmokhtar has been working for, Washington says it has no doubt. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in a statement Sunday night that the terrorist leader is “the operational leader of the al Qaeda-associated al Murabitun organization in Northwest Africa, and maintains his personal allegiance to al Qaeda.”

At the time of the strike, Belmokhtar is said to have been meeting with members of Ansar al-Sharia, which the U.S. blames for the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi that led to the death of the American ambassador and three other Americans.

Top brass. The Army celebrated its 240th birthday over the weekend, with Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and civilian Secretary John McHugh marking the occasion for the last time as the team atop the country’s ground service. The duo – both set to retire this fall — delivered the usual rah-rah speeches to over 1,000 officers, enlisted soldiers, and their families on Saturday night in Washington.

While D.C. is nice and all, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Heidi Grant are having a slightly better week outside of the humid confines of the capital. The two kick off the week in Paris, where they’re attending the Paris Air Show, followed by a jaunt over to Brussels, where James is hosting “a conversation with Secretary James” press event.

It’s looking to be a busy week for the Situation Report, with congressional defense spending debates, Libyan airstrikes, ongoing chaos in Iraq, big international defense deals being hashed out at the Paris Air Show, and lots more. Let us know what’s happening at paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com, or on Twitter: @paulmcleary

Shark week

Capitol Hill’s annual struggle to reach a budget deal that funds the Department of Defense can be a painful thing to watch. But late last week the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee each passed their own versions of the bill in surprisingly quick order, clearing the way for the Senate to take the bill up for debate this week.

What isn’t surprising about the whole deal is that both bills added plenty of defense industry-friendly provisions ordering the Pentagon to buy billions of dollars worth of new fighter planes beyond what military leaders and the White House had requested. The House tacked on over $1 billion in fighter jets, while the bill that the Senate is considering adds $1.2 billion to buy more Lockheed Martin-made F-35s, $979 million for additional Boeing F/A-18s, and $160 million for more MQ-9 Reaper drones made by General Atomics. The Senate panel also added about $1.6 billion to the Navy’s shipbuilding account to pay for two more DDG-51 destroyers, and other maintenance programs.

One piece of the Senate debate to watch is language that would provide Ukraine with offensive weapons like mortars, grenade launchers, and ammunition — all over longtime White House opposition. The Senate Appropriations committee included the provision, but it’s got a long way to go before the bill makes it out of Congress.

The business of defense

While defense industry bigwigs are waiting to see what the Senate has to say on the spending bill, industry giant Raytheon is touting Washington’s recent approval of the sale of its AN/TPY-2 ballistic missile defense radar to foreign governments. The company has already delivered 10 of the systems to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, which has placed them in Japan, Turkey, Guam, and Israel, but the new rules say the company can now sell it as a stand-alone system.

Previously, the system had to be to be integrated with Lockheed Martin’s theater high altitude air defense (THAAD) system, but now Raytheon is free to go out and sell it to countries who use Raytheon’s very own Patriot missile system, too. We’re only weeks away from the June 30 deadline for a deal with Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, making the announcement pretty timely for nervous allies in the Middle East.

Another defense giant, United Technologies, announced on Monday that it is looking to exit the helicopter business and spin off or sell its $8 billion Sikorsky Aircraft unit, which for years has been the largest single provider of helicopters to the U.S. military. A final decision won’t be reached for some time, but options include combining the company with the Bell Helicopter unit of Textron or outright selling it.

U.S. Army

There’s some extra punch coming to the Pacific Northwest as 24 Apache attack helicopters and 400 soldiers will be heading to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State to rebuild the 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. The unit – which previously flew Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters – had been “temporarily disbanded” in 2014 as the Army kicked off its highly controversial program to replace its Kiowas with Apaches it took away from the National Guard, much to the Guard’s ongoing objections.

U.S. Navy

U.S. Naval War College professor James Holmes says that the “silent” part of the U.S. Navy’s ‘silent service’ is in danger, as potential adversaries develop newer and better technologies to seek and track American submarines as they ply the depths. It’s the “U.S. Navy’s Worst Nightmare.”

Look East, young grunt!

The U.S. military’s pivot to Eastern Europe continues, as the Army is said to be putting the finishing touches on a plan to store dozens of Abrams battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia for upcoming training exercises. The plan follows on last year’s announcement of the “European Activity Set” which sent a smaller number of tanks and vehicles to the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany.

In a sign of just how deeply uneasy European allies are about Russia’s game in the region, U.S. Army Europe chief Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges spent much of last week in Norway in talks with defense officials there about increasing training between American and Norwegian troops.

More Russia

Just how seriously should Western powers take the threat posed by Russia’s decision to supply Iran with its S-300 surface-to-air missile? Quentin Buckholz discusses the impact – if the deal goes through and Iran actually deploys the system — for The Diplomat.

 

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

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