The Cable

Situation Report: Army releases controversial plan; defense officials call out Russia; Hezbollah taking hits in Syria; Mexican drones; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley End hits. The Army chose an interesting time to unveil a plan for cutting a staggering 40,000 troops and 17,000 civilians by 2018. By leaking most of it to the press earlier in the week, the service guaranteed that Senators would ask the nominee to be the next head ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

End hits. The Army chose an interesting time to unveil a plan for cutting a staggering 40,000 troops and 17,000 civilians by 2018. By leaking most of it to the press earlier in the week, the service guaranteed that Senators would ask the nominee to be the next head of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joe Dunford, about it during his confirmation hearing on Thursday. They also got the plan out there as grist for questioning later this month when Gen. Mark Milley is expected to head up to the Hill for his own confirmation hearing to be the next Army chief of staff.

And in the process, the Army just might have kickstarted the debate over the mandatory budget cuts that will kick in Oct. 1, when fiscal year 2016 begins. Sen. John McCain has been calling for the White House and the Hill to do something about the cuts for months, to little avail. Will this be the forcing function needed to get the debate moving? Time will tell.

The numbers. The Army estimates that the cut of 40,000 soldiers will result in savings of $7 billion over four years, dollars that are critical for the service’s plans to modernize its ground vehicle and helicopter fleets. But to do so, there’ll be thousands of fewer troops at about 25 Army bases around the world.

But some of the biggest critics in Congress of the Army’s proposed staffing cuts “were the very members of Congress who four years ago voted to impose government-wide budget measures that the Pentagon warned then would compel it to slash the military,” McClatchy’s James Rosen points out.

On the road. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, fresh from his off-the-record speech on Thursday to a group of media and tech execs in Sun Valley Utah, visits Fort Bragg, N.C. on Friday to address troops at the base that is slated to lose 840 troops in the upcoming round of Army force cuts.

Groupthink. Both the nominee to be the next head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the civilian boss of the U.S. Air Force came down hard this week on the subject of Russia, with each official naming Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the biggest threat to the security of the United States.

During his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Gen. Joe Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Moscow’s newfound military aggressiveness “presents the greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” Just a day earlier, U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James said that “I do consider Russia to be the biggest threat,” to the United States, adding that it’s critical the U.S. continue to send rotations of F-16 fighter squadrons to Europe to flex some muscle in the face of Russian aggression in the Ukraine and across the Baltics. “This is no time to in any way signal a lack of resolve in the face of these Russian actions,” she said.

But not all agree. FP’s Paul McLeary points out that James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a Senate panel in February that cyberattacks against the nation’s infrastructure — not Russia — were the biggest threat to the United States. Plenty of threats to go around theses days, apparently.

Terrorist vs. terrorist. The powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has somewhat quietly been suffering mounting battlefield casualties while fighting in neighboring Syria, as Tehran’s most important proxy plunges ever deeper into a potential quagmire, FP’s Dan De Luce writes. The group has for years publicly supported the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, but several U.S. and Mideast officials estimate that it has come at a real cost.

Numbers are hard to come by, but at least 700 of the 6,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters on the ground in Syria have been killed over the past two years, losses that have hit the militia hard. The mostly Sunni militia groups fighting to oust the Assad regime represent a real threat for the Shiite Hezbollah, as “Syria has long served as a conduit for arms deliveries from Iran and as a buffer, providing it “strategic depth” from its arch-foe, Israel,” De Luce writes. “But the Shiite militia has to balance its need to prevent a Sunni takeover in Syria with retaining combat-ready forces in southern Lebanon to take on Israel.”

No nukes! Deadlines. No one likes them, and the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators in Vienna have blown through another one. While the world continues to wait for the two sides to come to some sort of an agreement on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry faced the media again on Thursday, saying that the two sides “will not rush, and we will not be rushed” into finalizing a deal.

“This is not open-ended,” however, “President Obama made it very clear to me last night: We can’t wait forever for the decision to be made. . . . We are absolutely prepared to call an end to this process.”

While we continue to wait for an Iranian nuke deal, and look for the next U.S. official to come out against Moscow, the Situation Report is holding steady. Have anything noteworthy to share? Pass it along at paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or send along a shout or DM on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Mexico’s Drones

While the deployment of unarmed Predator drones by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southern border with Mexico has garnered attention here in the States, Mexican security agencies have actually been flying their own drones for well over a decade. Beginning in 2002 with the development of Mexico’s S4 Ehécatl tactical UAVs, agencies from the Navy, Air Force, National Intelligence Center and other security forces have been flying everything from micro drones to larger medium altitude long endurance drones. While the Mexican government has sourced a number of drones from Israeli contractors, the country is now home to a handful of aerospace companies developing UAVs.

Islamic State

U.S. officials say a drone strike in Nangahar, Afghanistan earlier this week killed ­Shahidullah Shahid, who left his career as a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban to fight for the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Shahid was one of more than two dozen suspected Islamic State fighters killed in the drone strike. Another official from the group, Gull Zaman, was also killed in a drone strike, although officials haven’t said whether he died in the same incident as Shahid.

Iran

There have been reports that the USS Forrest Sherman and a U.S. Navy helicopter were targeted by a laser device from an Iranian merchant ship off the coast of Yemen. Little is known about the incident so far and the laser device behind it, but the Gulf of Aden has become a flashpoint between the U.S. and Saudi vessels and their Iranian counterparts. In April, Saudi fighter jets intercepted two Iranian cargo planes headed for Yemen and a U.S. naval task force turned back Yemen-bound Iranian cargo ships believed to be carrying weapons. In late June, Iran announced that its 35th Fleet, consisting of a frigate and light replenishment ship was headed towards the Gulf of Aden.

The National Security Network‘s J. Dana Stutster takes a look at Iran’s relationships in the Middle East and argues that, rather than ascendant in the region, Iran’s influence is limited by the growth of sectarianism and the need to prop up traditional allies and relationships that have been shaken up by the fallout of the Arab Spring. “Over the past four years, the Arab Spring and ensuing threats to Tehran’s allies have compelled it to scale back its attempts to expand its regional power and instead focus on defending its existing sphere of influence,” he writes.

Conventional weapons are proving to be a last-minute sticking point in the negotiations over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. In addition to nuclear-related equipment, Iran is also subject to international restrictions on its ability to purchase conventional arms. Now the country’s negotiators are asking that those restrictions be lifted as part of a final deal. While Russia, a historic arms supplier for Iran, supports the removal, the U.S. and its European allies take a dim view of lifting the embargo.

NATO

The venerable A-10 Warthog will be making a return trip to Poland. Tank-busters from the U.S. Air Force’s 355th Fighter Wing will be visiting Poland’s 2nd Air Base located in Lask for a joint exercise and a longer stay than their last visit back in the spring. As with a lot of U.S. military activity in eastern Europe lately, the goal is to reassure NATO allies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its increasingly aggressive behavior.

Asia

Japan is asking to join a NATO missile consortium working on an upgrade of the SeaSparrow missile. The Evolved SeaSparrow is aimed at providing an improved defense against anti-ship cruise missiles, a capability which countries like China have been developing with some success, alarming U.S. officials. The U.S. is hoping Japan’s participation in the consortium will encourage it to take a more active role in improving its defense capabilities as China increasingly builds up in naval forces in the region.

When Kim Jong Un made a visit to what the North Korean propaganda machine said was an agricultural production facility last month, no one much batted an eye. But a new analysis of the equipment at the facility by Melissa Hanham over at 38North shows that the visit may have been a veiled threat from Kim to South Korea. Hanham points out that the equipment seen in the footage of Kim’s visit, much of which represents a violation of international sanctions against the country, is capable of producing anthrax and agricultural plants are often used as cover for biological weapons production. Even more intriguing: the visit to the plant took place on the same day that a defector reportedly fled North Korea with evidence of the North’s biowar programs.

 

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