Situation Report: U.S. Navy setting sail for the South China Sea; the creeping mission in Iraq; get your popcorn ready for Carter and Dunford on the Hill; new team investigating Kunduz; and lots more
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Setting sail. It finally happened. A U.S. Navy ship passed within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea on Tuesday, after three years of dithering over whether or not to disregard for China’s territorial claims there. FP’s Dan De Luce and ...
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley
Setting sail. It finally happened. A U.S. Navy ship passed within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea on Tuesday, after three years of dithering over whether or not to disregard for China’s territorial claims there. FP’s Dan De Luce and Keith Johnson were the first to flag the imminent freedom-of-navigation patrol back in September. But now the USS Lassen has cruised near the Subi reef to underscore that Washington does not view those waters as Chinese territory, as Beijing insists.
De Luce and Johnson are back to assess the Lassen’s close encounter with the disputed hunks of hastily-constructed rock and sand, noting that while “the naval patrol risks a potential military confrontation in the short term…it offers little prospect of dissuading Beijing from pursuing its far-reaching territorial ambitions in one of the world’s most important waterways.” In what some interpreted as preemptive move, in August China sent warships into United States territorial waters when five Chinese ships sailed within 12 miles of coast of Alaska while President Barack Obama was visiting the state.
Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) issued a statement Monday calling the U.S. Navy’s action “a necessary and overdue response” to China’s building spree. “International law is clear that China has no legitimate claim to sovereignty over these waters, and it is high time that this administration reaffirmed America’s enduring commitment to freedom of navigation,” he wrote.
The watchmen. The investigation into what happened at the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Oct. 3 drags on. The initial look at how and why a U.S. Green Beret team called in a devastating airstrike by a U.S. AC-130 gunship is still not complete, but commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, has flipped the script on the whole thing by announcing a new group of generals to investigate the matter.
Campbell’s “independent” assessment team is now being led by Maj. Gen. William Hickman, deputy commanding general of operations for U.S. Army Central based in Kuwait. He also named two other generals from Centcom — Brig. Gen. Robert Armfield, a career U.S. Air Force special operations officer who is currently the vice director of strategy at Centcom, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Sean Jenkins, deputy director for operations at U.S. Central Command — to “ensure the investigation is independent and unbiased,” according to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis. While the three are not in the direct line chain of command in Afghanistan, the war falls under Centcom’s geographic umbrella.
More details. The Green Berets who called in the strike were almost certainly “aware it was a functioning hospital but believed it was under Taliban control,” the AP’s Ken Dilanian reports. Just a day before the strike, one “senior officer” in the unit wrote in a report that U.S. forces had a conversation with the charity group about the hospital, while an MSF spokesperson tells the AP that just days before the attack, “an official in Washington” asked the group “whether our hospital had a large group of Taliban fighters in it,” to which they were told that it did not.
More boots, more bombs. In the wake of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s assertion on Friday that U.S. ground forces will see more combat in Iraq, comes word that defense officials are considering whether to embed troops with Iraqi units closer to the fight. The troops, according to the options being drawn up at the Pentagon, would also have the ability to call in airstrikes, something that top military leaders have mentioned as a possibility for much of the past year.
Syria airstrike watch. On Oct. 26, the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria launched only its second strike inside Syria since Oct. 22, hitting a mortar system near Mar’a. The coalition hit the same area back on the 22nd. The lull in strikes might be grist for questioning on Tuesday morning when Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford appear before Sen. John McCain and his Senate Armed Services Committee.
Good morning, all, and welcome to another edition of SitRep. Thanks for clicking on through, and hope you find this little thing we have going on here useful. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.
Tune in to this week’s new Editor’s Roundtable (The E.R.) podcast episode, where David Rothkopf, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, and Tom Ricks debate whether the U.S. military is still too much of an industrial-era relic to operate in the Information Age. How can the U.S. military adapt to a new world order and is it even possible to upgrade the current system without the urgency of a catastrophe? Listen and subscribe to FP’s podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher: http://atfp.co/1K7nhrI
Russia managed to convince at least some rebels operating under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella to take a trip to Moscow as part of its of pledge to cooperate against the Islamic State. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty picked up Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s somewhat cryptic remarks about hosting FSA-related rebels. “Someone is arriving, someone is leaving, all of them are saying that they are representatives of the Free Syrian Army,” Bogdanov said. After denying the existence of a “moderate” Syrian opposition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov floated the possibility of working with FSA units last week.
In a bizarre twist, an Australian soldier thought dead may have joined up with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s organizational footprint in Syria. The Guardian reports on a trail of evidence suggesting that Matthew Stewart, an Australian soldier who left the service in 2001 and joined al-Qaeda shortly before 9/11, is now with the group’s Syrian affiliate. A Nusra-linked publication recently reported on the life of a “Hamza al-Australi” fighting with the group whose background matches Stewart’s biography. There have been a number of alleged sightings of Stewart since he crossed into Afghanistan in August 2001.
The Islamic State’s war against Turkey claimed the lives of two more people on Monday as fighters for the group killed two Turkish policemen in a shootout during a police raid. The incident happened as Turkish police raided a safe house belonging to the group. Long criticized for allegedly turning a blind eye to the Islamic State’s presence in their territory, Turkey has been cracking down against the group ever since it carried out a suicide bombing against Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Suruç. The country is currently on edge amid warnings that suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State have entered the country ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
It doesn’t looks like Russia’s operations in Syria are going to break the bank any time soon. The Financial Times has a solid rundown of what it is assumed Moscow is spending on its bombing campaign in Syria, and at the highest estimate of $4 million a day is still less than half of the $10 million a day that Washington is paying. At this pace, Moscow should be able to foot the bill for some time to come, thanks in part to the lack of transparency when it comes to the real Russian defense budget, and a decade’s worth of increasing defense spending, both of which have made sure that Moscow’s trigger pullers have the excess cash on hand to take care of business.
Is Moscow planning it’s own “Pacific pivot?” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently announced Russia’s intention to build a base on the Kuril Islands just north of Japan, a stinging reminder to Tokyo that Russia seized the island chain just before the end of WWII. The islands sit near some important shipping lanes, and would also help bolster the renewed military ties between Moscow and Beijing, which were on display recently when the two conducted joint naval exercises. At the moment, Russia’s Pacific Fleet boasts 73 vessels, which includes 23 submarines and 50 warships.
Russia is playing hardball with one of its best customers over purchases of its 5th generation stealth fighter. Analysts say Russia will withhold the export of the S-400 air defense missiles which the Indian Air Force has requested until India “clarifies” how many stealth PAK-FA fighter jets it intends to purchase from Russia. India has pledged to purchase at least some of the aircraft in 2010 and wanted to jointly develop the aircraft with Russia. But the PAK-FA program has hit a number of snags recently, including increasing costs, schedule delays, technical problems, and international sanctions on Russia.
No more flipping the bird, guys. A joint U.S.-China memo is banning each country’s pilots from flashing the rigid digit and talking trash at each other in the wake of some recent close encounters between Chinese and American aircraft. The Associated Press reports that the two countries have amended a memorandum on safety rules to stress that “Military aircrew should refrain from the use of uncivil language or unfriendly physical gestures.” The hope is that more civil behavior in the skies above China’s disputed maritime borders can prevent any unfortunate incidents, like in 2001 when a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. Navy spy plane.
Fourteen years into the war in Afghanistan, and Washington still hasn’t figured out a plan to confront Afghanistan’s role as the opium dealer to the world. US News and World Report’s Paul D. Shinkman reports that Washington hasn’t updated its counternarcotics strategy since 2012, and the State Department has blown through a self-imposed deadline this past August to put a new plan in place. Instead, State has convened a “working group” to study a recent Afghan plan, after which they’ll come up with their own path forward.
Business of defense
The defense industry will stay at the edge of its gilded seats on Tuesday, waiting for the Air Force to announce who will be the winner of its $55 billion stealth bomber contract. It’s expected that the Air Force will make the announcement after the close of markets Tuesday either to Northrop Grumman, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber, or a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.
There may be trouble ahead for the F-35 thanks to the recent elections in Canada. Reuters reports that the incoming Liberal government plans to go back to square one on the competition to replace its CF-18 fighter jets. Canada had planned to buy 65 of the stealth F-35 fighter jets from the U.S., but now Liberal party sources tell Reuters that they plan to take the stealth jet out of consideration in the CF-18 replacement program.
Who’s where when
9:00 a.m. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to talk through U.S. military strategy in the Middle East. Livestream here.
12:00 p.m. Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Doug Wise, provides remarks on “challenges with denied areas, digital domains, and determined adversaries” panel at the annual Ethos and Profession of Intelligence conference. Livestream here.
1:30 p.m. Carter and Israel’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon speak at National Defense University, Washington, DC. Livestream here.
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