The Cable

Situation Report: EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon exploring new Pacific basing plans; new Russia chief takes over at the Pentagon; Obama huddles with military chiefs; Congress finally jumps into wartime intel investigation; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley War room rules. With the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State dragging on, President Barack Obama will pay a visit to the Pentagon Monday morning for an update on the war effort. There’s little evidence that any major changes to the war strategy will be announced when Obama ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

War room rules. With the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State dragging on, President Barack Obama will pay a visit to the Pentagon Monday morning for an update on the war effort.

There’s little evidence that any major changes to the war strategy will be announced when Obama addresses the press at 12:15 p.m. from the Pentagon briefing room, however. Defense Secretary Ash Carter didn’t offer much about the meeting when asked about it Friday, saying the president is always looking for tweaks to the overall strategy, but that the war plan is going to stay pretty much the same: bomb the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while training Iraqi forces and partner with Syrian rebels where possible.

The only glimmer of change came when Carter was asked about troop strength. There are about 3,500 U.S. forces currently on the ground in Iraq, and “the president has indicated and shown a willingness to increase that number,” Carter said.

Only in FP: Given China’s increasing naval might — and Beijing’s willingness to project force — the U.S. Navy is “pushing to arm its surface vessels and submarines with more effective anti-ship missiles with longer ranges” FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive story. And given the vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to long-range Chinese missiles, the Pentagon is also looking at “spreading warplanes and other weapons across more numerous air bases,” in the region and concealing their movement where possible. “The strategy does not require large, permanent bases, but instead access to a variety of airfields in the Pacific, even relatively crude runways without much other infrastructure,” Pentagon officials told De Luce.

Exclusive: New Russia/Ukraine chief takes over at the Pentagon. Monday is the first day at the Defense Department for Dr. Michael Carpenter, who takes over as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Western Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control, SitRep has learned. He’s replacing Evelyn Farkas, who quit rather abruptly in October amid talk of sharp disagreements with the administration over a host of issues, including providing lethal help to the Ukrainian military.

Carpenter comes directly from Vice President Joe Biden’s office, where he served as Biden’s special advisor for Europe and Eurasia, meaning he’s particularly plugged into the White House’s thinking on what policies to pursue in the region. Before working for the vice president, Carpenter spent 12 years at the State Department working in a variety of Russian and NATO-related posts, and served as the director for Russia at the National Security Council.

Biden has in many ways been the administration’s point man on Ukraine, having visited Kiev four times since the country’s Maidan revolution in Feb. 2014.

Days after leaving office, Farkas admitted to some tensions with the White House. Speaking with reporters at a previously scheduled breakfast meeting early last month, she said some of her “personal views” may be “slightly different than what the current administration’s position is,” on Ukraine and Russia, including stationing U.S. troops in NATO’s Eastern European member nations, and providing “lethal, defensive assistance to Ukraine, primarily anti-tank weapons.”

Basing troops in Eastern Europe would violate the terms of an agreement between NATO and Russia about where they can place forces in the region, but Farkas said Moscow already blew up the agreement when it invaded Ukraine in 2014. “Here I’ll go out on a limb beyond what [the] administration would say: The NATO-Russia framework agreement is broken. The Russians broke it,” she said.

Those views might not be that far afield, however. In an April appearance at a Jamestown Foundation conference, Carpenter said that Moscow “has completely shredded” the NATO-Russia founding agreement, and has “violated nearly every tenant” of the document by invading Ukraine.

In keeping with Deputy Defense secretary Bob Work’s recent push to reinvigorate the Pentagon’s war gaming skills, Carpenter added, “there needs to be more gaming, more scenario analysis” on the covert tactics Russia has displayed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “This is something that the [NATO] alliance has not done over the course of its history, and its something it needs to start doing now.” He also advocated “increasing our resources and doing more” in the Baltics.

Beltway shuffle. While the president huddles with his national security team at the Pentagon Monday morning, a few key members will be shuttling back and forth over the Potomac themselves. The Center for a New American Security is hosting a National Security Forum with some heavy hitters in attendance. Speakers include Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work at 9:05 a.m., Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley at 10:00 a.m., and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford at 1:00 p.m.

Welcome back as we kick off another week here from deep inside the bunker at SitRep Central. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Syria

The U.S. has been asking western countries to step up and contribute more to the war against the Islamic State in Syria, with Defense Secretary Ash Carter circulating a request letter to roughly 40 countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, has said nein thanks to Carter’s letter, responding that her country is already pitching in quite enough. When asked about the letter, Merkel said “Germany is fulfilling its part” and that further discussion isn’t warranted. Germany has already agreed to send six Tornado reconnaissance jets to Syria along with some support personnel.

Rocket fire and bombs dropped on the Douma neighborhood in eastern Damascus killed 45 people in an attack launched by the Assad regime on Sunday. The attack hit near a primary school, killing its principal and 10 children. The Syrian observatory for Human Rights, a London-based human rights group which monitors reports from the conflict told Agence France Presse that it couldn’t tell whether bombs dropped in the attack came from Russian or Syrian aircraft.

The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army is bordering on collapse, according to Stars and Stripes. The paper spoke to rebels with the group, who complained of corrupt leaders skimming from their salaries, exhaustion and factionalism within the ranks. By contrast, one fighter said rebels  are defecting to Islamist groups like the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which offers better compensation and benefits to its members and has made more progress on the battlefield.

Yemen

The Saudi-led Gulf coalition fighting the Houthi movement in Yemen announced that it has lost two senior officers in the conflict. The National, a government-owned newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, reported on Monday that Sultan Al Ketbi and Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Al Sahian were killed in a rocket attack near Taiz, Yemen.

Afghanistan

The Afghan government has lost some ground to the Taliban recently, prompting an alarmed Defense Department to quietly send more special operations troops to Helmand province and take on more of the fighting against the group, the New York Times reports. Afghan troops have reportedly fared poorly against the Taliban in Helmand, losing districts, getting surrounded by Taliban troops and calling on NATO for help.

Also, the Institute for the Study of War has a great new map of districts under Taliban control, and those in which government forces still hold sway.

Russia

A Russian navy ship fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat on Sunday in yet another incident in Russia and Turkey’s tit-for-tat feuding following Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November. Russia complained that the Turkish fishing boat strayed too close to one of its destroyers off the coast of Syria, prompting the warning shots and threats of “potentially disastrous consequences” for Turkey.

China

China announced that its navy undertook exercises in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, calling the drills “routine,” according to a report from Reuters. The exercise involved live fire, according to pictures released by state-owned Chinese media. Tensions in the South China Sea are still high following the U.S. decision to challenge contested Chinese claims of territorial sovereignty over islands in the region by sailing warships and flying bombers near them.

Congress

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is rejecting claims from U.S. allies that the Foreign Military Sales process is too slow and bureaucratic, characterizing the gripes as an attempt to work over the U.S. for lower prices on weapons and evade “checks and balances,” Defense News reports. Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, expressed displeasure with the speed of weapons sales after visiting the recent Dubai Airshow and getting an earful from U.S. allies about how long clearing U.S. weapons sales takes.

Here it comes. A few key congressmen have said they’re ready to start investigating allegations that military officials at the U.S. Central Command have been cooking the intel books in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Friday, the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Appropriations Committee announced they had established a Joint Task Force to look into “whether these allegations reflect systemic problems across the intelligence enterprise” at Central Command, “or any other pertinent intelligence organizations.” Early findings are expected early next year.

Business of defense

The latest numbers are in, and the U.S. is still leading the world in arms sales. But there are signs of slippage in the dominance of western defense firms. U.S. and European arms sales have slid again for the fourth year in a row while sales are up among non-western defense firms. A handful of countries, including Brazil, India, South Korea and Turkey, are emerging as more competitive arms producers.

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