The Cable

Situation Report: Here are China’s new killer drones; new Centcom chief named; U.N. leader dings Washington; drone base in Niger under construction; Benghazi goes Hollywood; Mosul and Raqqa mapped; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Big boom. Meet China’s new generation of killer drones, or what FP contributor Adam Rawnsley calls the “Kalashnikovs of the drone world.” These relatively cheap, relatively reliable, but very deadly armed drones are being snatched up by countries frustrated by the American refusal to sell drone technology to anyone ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Big boom. Meet China’s new generation of killer drones, or what FP contributor Adam Rawnsley calls the “Kalashnikovs of the drone world.” These relatively cheap, relatively reliable, but very deadly armed drones are being snatched up by countries frustrated by the American refusal to sell drone technology to anyone but a small handful of NATO allies, and they’re making their presence felt. A recent strike by Iraqi forces using a Chinese-made drone — which inadvertently wiped out a small group of Shiite militia members allied with the government — threw the spotlight on the proliferation of these Chinese killing machines, and it turns out there are a lot of eager buyers. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have bought armed Chinese drones, as have Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iraq.

New guy, same wars. On Thursday, U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel became President Barack Obama’s latest pick to run Washington’s wars in the Middle East. The choice of Votel — who is coming off stints leading the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command — to helm U.S. Central Command underscores the central role that elite special operations troops are playing in the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, writes FP’s Paul McLeary. Since late last year, two U.S Army operators have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 2016 promises to be an even busier year now that U.S. officials have become less shy about openly putting those troops in combat.

There are still about 3,000 special operations troops and their enablers serving in Afghanistan carrying out counterterrorism missions to try and keep the Taliban — and increasingly, the Islamic State — from overrunning entire provinces. It’s a significant and little publicized number by any reckoning, especially considering there are roughly 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan overall. Over in Iraq, another 200 commandos have just landed to kick off a new round of kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership.

Not a fan. The U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, doesn’t appear to be too impressed with air power, particularly as it has been practiced by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Russia in recent months. Ban took a bit of a poke at U.S. and Saudi air operations in Afghanistan and Yemen, denouncing “so-called ‘surgical strikes’” that hit medical facilities last year as “assaults on our common humanity.”

But Washington doesn’t get all the blame. FP’s Colum Lynch spoke to a U.N. official who said that Ban is also “deeply concerned about the Syrian regime’s air power in heavily populated towns in that country’s civil war, where Damascus routinely bombards rebel-controlled towns with barrel bombs. Russia, which is accused of killing as many as 800 civilians in airstrikes since it entered the war last September to bolster the Syrian government, is also a top concern.”

The next fight. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said this week that there are “big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqa.” Iraqi and Kurdish forces will soon start to make their push toward Mosul, while a coalition of Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters close in on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. But what will those fights look like? The Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman mapped it out, with some interesting graphics to accompany his story.

Good morning, all. We’re less than two weeks into 2016, and it’s been a pretty busy year so far. 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

Vice News takes a look at how the regime of Bashar al-Assad is using the starvation from siege warfare in the western towns of Syria to claim the populated, contiguous parts of what’s known as “useful Syria.” The sieges have caused widespread suffering to civilians, most notably in Madaya, where aid groups have recently shown off haunting images of emaciated locals. The Assad regime leverages the hunger and isolation of surrounded rebel enclaves to pressure them into accepting ceasefires, which mandate the evacuation of rebel fighters.

Somalia

Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al Shabaab have overrun a Somali National Army base in Ceel Cado, west of Mogadishu, Reuters reports. Al-Shabaab claims to have killed 61 troops and captured a number of vehicles in the assault. Kenyan military officials say their troops, operating nearby as part of an African Union presence in the country, have launched a counterattack. Locals say Somali and regional troops have fled the city following Shabaab’s takeover.

Niger

Satellite imagery reveals that Niger is repaving the runway at Mano Dayak International Airport, a sign that it may be gearing up to host American drones for use in the war against the Boko Haram Islamist terrorist group. Offiziere reports that the airport, where the U.S. reportedly received permission from Niger to host American drones, also has a new hangar and parking apron. The construction is designed to accommodate U.S. C-17 transport planes as well as Predator and Reaper drones, according to Defense Department budget documents.

China

China announced in September that it would start reorganizing its military to be a more modern, leaner force. For those looking to keep track of the People’s Liberation Army org chart, China Defense Blog has a handy chart showing where all the boxes line up under the Central Military Commission.

Chinese troops have carried out an exercise in the desert of the country’s Xinjiang Province, raising the possibility the People’s Liberation Army is beginning to prepare itself to operate farther abroad one day. Analysts say that China has been slowly preparing its marines to take on the role of an expeditionary force. The similarity of the terrain in  Xinjiang, where the recent exercise took place, to parts of Africa and the Middle East where China has significant commercial operations suggests that China may be preparing its marines to protect its citizens and investments abroad. The training comes in conjunction with a recent counterterrorism law which authorizes the deployment of Chinese troops outside China’s borders.

Korea

North Korea’s recent drone flight across the border into South Korea may be a sign of preparations for an attack against the South’s propaganda broadcasting infrastructure. After the North carried out a provocative nuclear test in January, South Korea responded by blasting Korean pop music and anti-North Korean propaganda across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Now analysts think that the North Korean drone which crossed the DMZ on Wednesday may have been trying to pinpoint the location of the loudspeakers to destroy them in an attack.

The business of defense

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants to goose the sale of F-18 Super Hornets to Kuwait, blaming a sluggish export control process for the delay, Breaking Defense reports. Speaking at the Surface Navy Association conference, Mabus called the approval process “frustrating” and “torturous.” As slow as U.S. arms export bureaucracy may be, some believe that Mabus may be trying to use the Kuwait sale to keep production lines for the F-18 open in the event that F-35 production slips further behind schedule.

Bergdahl

Is U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s decision to allow hours of taped phone conversations between him and a Hollywood producer coming back to haunt him? Former Army officer Bob Bateman writes in Esquire that by talking openly about his attempts to escape while a prisoner of the Taliban, Bergdahl is actually breaking several Army regulations as well as violating provisions under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. And it might have hurt him more than he realizes.

Critic’s corner

Michael Bay’s new movie “13 Hours” about the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and several other Americans dead, takes an extended — and very Hollywood — look at the world of the private contractors who play such a central role in securing American interests in some of the more dangerous districts of the world, writes US News’ Paul D. Shinkman.

Former Gen. David Petraeus and think tanker Michael O’Hanlon think the U.S. should start dropping more bombs on Afghanistan, and have taken to the pages of the Washington Post to  advocate for the “vigorous use” of U.S. airpower to keep the Taliban and the Islamic State at bay.

Tone deaf

Check out this flier found — and then taken down — at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia advertising a “Martin Luther King Jr. Fun Shoot” scheduled for the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. Someone, somewhere, at some point, thought this was a good idea.

 

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