The Cable

Situation Report: Russian buildup in Syria; USAF worried about rival tech; China keeps building; Navy ship woes; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Seeing eye to eye. The head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe said Monday that the Russians have so stepped up their game when it comes to producing next generation fighter planes, “the advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking.” But it’s ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Seeing eye to eye. The head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe said Monday that the Russians have so stepped up their game when it comes to producing next generation fighter planes, “the advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking.” But it’s not the planes he’s necessarily worried about. Moscow has invested heavily in recent years in ramping up its anti-aircraft capabilities to such an extent that the far reaches of Eastern Europe may essentially become a no-go zone for NATO aircraft.

“Up to this point, we have talked about anti-access/area denial with respect to the Pacific problem, but what I’m telling you is this is not just a Pacific problem,” Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told the Air Force Association conference outside of Washington. “It’s as significant in Europe as it is anywhere else on the planet.”

Ground game. Of particular concern are the surface-to-air batteries placed in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, nestled on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, and the newly-annexed Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. “There’s clearly a whole set of modern, long-range, surface-to-air missile systems that are clearly being layered in a way that makes access into that area more difficult,” Gorenc warned.

South of the border. And it’s not just the Baltics and the Black Sea. Satellite images and U.S. defense officials are now confirming that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent tanks, troops, and artillery to Syria. While few analysts believe that Russian troops will throw themselves into the thick of the fight against the Islamic State and Nusra Front any time soon, recent satellite images obtained by FP do show that Moscow is digging in for what appears to be a long stay, FP contributor Jeffrey Lewis writes.

Russian cargo aircraft and ships have been beating a steady path to Syrian airfields and ports in recent weeks, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, with more than 15 cargo flights landing at Latakia in recent days. Similarly, Russian navy and commercial ships have continued steaming into Syrian ports, including the recent arrival of two tank landing ships.

This all comes against the backdrop of the opening of the 70th United Nations General Assembly, which opens Tuesday. Putin is scheduled to attend the assembly later this month for the first time since 2005.

Want to take a closer look? The Institute for the Study of War has come out with another helpful detailed map showing who controls what ground in Syria.

Top tweet

More pictures of U.S.-built M-ATV armored vehicles burning in Yemen: RT @@HussainBukhaiti 24 #UAE armoured vehicles destroyed in Marib 1st pic unidentified fighters runnin away after #Houthi fighters ambush

Good morning! Thanks for joining us yet again. As always, please pass along any tips, notes, or otherwise interesting bits of information that you may have at your disposal. Best way is to send them to or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.   

Check out the new Editor’s Roundtable (The E.R.) episode, posted today on iTunes and In this week’s conversation, FP Group’s CEO and editor David Rothkopf sits down with guests Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, and Robert Kagan to discuss why we are at a crossroads for American power and whether or not Barack Obama is the exception or the rule when it comes to American exceptionalism. Download and subscribe here:

That sinking feeling

There was a time where the U.S. Navy was planning on buying 32 high-tech Zumwalt-class destroyers made by General Dynamics. But now they may only buy two. Or possibly three. The program, which was put on life support by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in 2009 when he dropped the number of ships from 32 to three, has seen its cost per ship balloon by 34 percent since then — rising to about $3.4 billion per ship. And the Navy may cut one of the three currently in production in its 2017 budget request, reports Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio.

An internal Defense Department memo released Monday by the Project on Government Oversight shows that the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore, wasn’t quite as thrilled as the Marine Corps over a series of much-publicized tests of the F-35B fighter plane conducted in July aboard the USS Wasp. While the Corps says the plane is ready to go, Gilmore warns that a series of problems “are likely to present significant near-term challenges for the Marine Corps.”

Air Force

Gird yourself for a renewed battle over the fate of one of the Air Force’s most beloved warplanes. Defense News reports that the Air Force plans to once again include the retirement of the A-10 Warthog in its 2017 budget request, likely teeing up another fight between the service and the A-10’s defenders in Congress and elsewhere. The Air Force has tried to retire the plane before, which prompted howls of protest from those who love its utility in providing close air support and the alleged inadequacy — according to A-10 partisans — of the F-35 to carry out that role.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced Monday that Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone — the vacationing servicemember who charged and tackled a gunman’s planned rampage on a train in France last month — will receive the Purple Heart.


The Department of Defense is creating a new agency to streamline information sharing about space operations between the department, the intelligence community and the private sector, according to UPI. The Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center will be headquartered in Colorado Springs, Co. and given the quintessentially DoD acronym, JICSpOC.


Over in London, the biennial DSEI defense trade show has kicked off, bringing thousands of military staffers, generals, diplomats, shady characters, and journalists together for several days of gawking at the latest defense gear. These trade shows tend to be heavy on the wining and dining, and a little lighter on blunt talk about strategic competition, but this year at least, the Chinese delegation appears to be reading from a different playbook.

During a panel discussion on Monday, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the North Sea Fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy said, “the South China Sea, as the name indicated, is a sea area. It belongs to China.” He dropped the line while sitting next to U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jeff Harley, assistant deputy chief of naval operations, and Vice Adm. Umio Otsuka, president of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Command and Staff College. Welcome to London, gentlemen.

Satellite images obtained by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Sept. 8 show that China appears to be building a third airstrip in contested territory in the South China Sea. The images show activity on Mischief Reef, one of the artificial islands China has built in the Spratly archipelago. “The images show a rectangular area with a retaining wall, 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) long, matching similar work by China on two other reefs, Subi and Fiery Cross, said Greg Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative,” according to a Reuters report.

North Korea

North Korea is signaling that it is laying plans to launch a satellite into space, and officials believe the event is likely to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the North’s Workers Party. But it’s not North Korea’s pioneering interest in space that has the U.S. and others worrying about the event. The same technology that used to launch satellites into space is also used in launching missiles across continents, and officials worry that North Korea is using the test to improve missile capabilities and yet again ratchet up tensions in the region.


More information is coming out about Egypt’s disastrous firing on a convoy of Mexican tourists in the Western Desert region that killed 12 people, according to the New York Times. New evidence is casting doubt on the official storyline, and raising questions about how well Egyptian security forces are handling the resurgent Islamist violence in the country. Egyptian officials claim the convoy had entered a restricted zone but a tour guide association produced photographs of permit they say was issued to the group and locals say the tourists had a police escort.


Signal Magazine reports that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is kicking off a new program that aims to obscure software source code from potential reverse engineers. The Safeware program, comprised of a team of researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, MIT, the University of California San Diego and Raytheon, is aiming to leverage recent mathematical breakthroughs in software obfuscation to try and render underlying code and algorithms incomprehensible to observers through encryption. DARPA describes the project as useful for protecting “sensitive intellectual property.” Lead researcher Kurt Rohloff put a finer point on the practical military applications of that in an interview with Signal, offering the protection of classified software on board captured military aircraft like drones as a hypothetical application of Safeware’s work.

On the move

Dr. Evan S. Medeiros, former Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the White House’s National Security Council (NSC), has moved on to join Eurasia Group as managing director and practice head for Asia. Medeiros originally joined the NSC in 2009 as director for China, Taiwan and Mongolian Affairs.

Who’s where when

9:55 a.m. Gen. Hawk Carlisle, Commander, U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, talks about “5th Generation Warfare” at the annual Air Force Association (AFA) meeting held at National Harbor near Washington. Live stream here.

12:00 p.m. Outgoing Secretary of the Army John McHugh discusses his six years as the head of the service that carried more than its share of the weight in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now taking the lion’s share of budget cuts. He’ll be speaking with Mackenzie Eaglen at the American Enterprise Institute.

1:15 p.m. Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh addresses the AFA gathering. Live stream here.

Think Tanked

The Brookings Institution’s Will McCants has a new essay up on the Lawfare blog which clarifies some important biographical background on the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the role the U.S. invasion of Iraq played in his path to extremism. McCants argues that, contrary to early reporting, Baghdadi was not simply an unassuming theology student blown off course ideologically by the war. Rather, he writes that the Islamic State’s future caliph had displayed signs of jihadist radicalism well before the U.S. invasion of his country and that the conflict provided more the opportunity than the motivation for his ascent within the brutal global jihadist movement.


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