The Cable

Situation Report: Exclusive: Commando leader tells Pentagon to stop talking; new General heading for Afghanistan; Libya next?; Taiwan and China spar; huge increases in weapons costs coming; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Loose lips. The general in charge of the nation’s special operations forces recently sent a memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, demanding that Pentagon officials stop talking about what his elite troops are doing, FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive get. Gen. Joseph Votel, who currently runs ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Loose lips. The general in charge of the nation’s special operations forces recently sent a memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, demanding that Pentagon officials stop talking about what his elite troops are doing, FP’s Dan De Luce reports in an exclusive get. Gen. Joseph Votel, who currently runs the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and was nominated earlier this month to take over U.S. Central Command, issued the complaint in a Dec. 8 memo that arrived just days after Carter and White House officials announced that a force of about 200 Special Operations Forces (SOF) would be deployed to Iraq to target Islamic State militants.

“I am concerned with increased public exposure of SOF activities and operations, and I assess that it is time to get our forces back into the shadows,” Votel wrote, according to an excerpt provided to FP by a defense official. Votel knows something about secrecy, as he ran the Joint Special Operations Command from June 2011 to August 2014. He isn’t the first official to be angered over too much talk about commando ops, however. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials privately admonished their White House counterparts for publicizing key details about the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to Gates’ memoir.

Fourteen years of war, and a new General steps up. One place in particular where American special operators have been making headlines is Afghanistan. And the 9,800 U.S. troops there are about to get a new boss. If confirmed by the Senate, Army Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson will pin on a fourth star and head to Kabul in coming months to replace Gen. John Campbell, who is expected to retire. Nicholson, a veteran of multiple deployments to Afghanistan, is currently commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey. He’ll also appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. for a hearing on his nomination. Watch it live here.

Campbell took over the war in the summer of 2014, and was expected to be the general to close up shop on the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan. But after shuttering hundreds of combat outposts across the country and ending the NATO combat mission on Jan. 1, 2015, Afghan security forces have faltered in the face of a consistent Taliban offensive. Despite Washington’s $60 billion investment in the Afghan army and police, Campbell has argued that they need several more years of training and support before they’re ready to stand alone. And now the next general steps up to take over the fight.

US troops to Libya? In a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday, spokesman Peter Cook said that the United States islooking at military options” for dealing with the rise of the Islamic State in Libya. His remarks follow those made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who recently said that the U.S. is looking at ways to “take decisive military action” to “check” the expansion of ISIS in Libya. Cook was quick to say that military action is not forthcoming, but he confirmed that U.S. forces have been on the ground there. Their mission has been to get “a clearer picture of what’s happening there, and they’ve made contact with people on the ground to try and get a better sense not only of the threat” ISIS poses, but also to understand “the dynamic on the ground in terms of the security situation.”

They’re already there. A “small group” of American forces have already made contact with Libyan militias, “simply to get a sense of who the players are”, Cook said. But things have been happening in Libya for some time. French authorities have reported that they’ve flown at least two surveillance flights over Libyan towns controlled by ISIS in recent months, and in December, a Facebook page belonging to the Libyan air force posted photographs of a group of American commandos who landed at the wrong Libyan airport on a mission to talk to local leaders.

What do you think Gen. Votel has to say about all this?

Confirmation blues. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) sent a letter to a Senate colleague Wednesday supporting his block on the confirmation of Army secretary nominee Eric Fanning, while asking him to consider the case of a Green Beret the Army is trying to drum out of the service. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said he will not allow Fanning to be confirmed so long as president Barack Obama is working to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Hunter wrote Roberts asking him to “consider the case” of Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland as the confirmation process for Eric Fanning continues. “The only suitable course of action, I firmly believe, is to permit Martland to continue his service in the U.S. Army.” Martland is accused of roughing up an Afghan police commander who had abducted and repeatedly raped a young boy at their shared outpost in 2011, and an Army panel recently moved the case for his separation from the service forward. The Army Review Boards Agency still has the final say, and their decision is expected in the coming weeks.

Good morning, all! Things are humming along here at SitRep HQ, but as you know, we can never get enough information, so 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

Russian troops are on the hunt for a Turkish man involved in the killing of a Russian pilot who ejected from an Su-24 jet after a Turkish jet shot his plane down. The Independent reports that Russian and Syrian forces are looking for Alparslan Celik, a Turkish citizen fighting with Turkmen in Syria, for his role in the death of Russian pilot Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov. Celik is believed to be hiding in Syria’s Latakia province.

Iran

Officials from the European Union (EU) tell the AP that France is pushing for more sanctions on Iran in response to its recent ballistic missile tests, allegedly in violation of United Nations sanctions. EU officials are reportedly cool to the idea so soon after the signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran lifting nuclear-related sanctions. The move would follow the United States’ recent application of new financial restrictions against Iran in response to its test of the Emad medium range ballistic missile in October and another test in November.

Iran’s annual Velayat navy drills are underway in the Persian Gulf, and Iranian officials are claiming to have shooed away a U.S. warship from the exercise area. Iranian news outlets close to the country’s armed services ran stories on Wednesday claiming that an American vessel left the area after being warned by Iranian ships to leave. The Hill reports that a Pentagon spokesman described the event as routine, saying, “our forces similarly announce closure areas for our training events.”

China

Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris says the U.S. plans on keeping up the pressure on China over its assertions of territorial sovereignty surrounding a series of man-made islands in the South China Sea. Speaking to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday, Harris said the Navy will carry out more freedom of navigation operations around the islands “increasing in complexity and scope,” according to Breaking Defense.

Taiwan

Reuters reports that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took a short trip to the disputed island of Itu Aba, one of a number of islands in the reefs near the Spratly Islands which are claimed by China. The visit and its implicit assertion of sovereignty comes at an especially tense time in relations between China and Taiwan, following the election of a President Ma’s successor Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors more independence from China. The U.S. criticized Ma’s trip to Itu Aba, calling the visit “extremely unhelpful.”

North Korea

North Korea may have more provocative fireworks in store for the region. Reuters reports that an anonymous Japanese government official said that recent activity seen in satellite imagery of the North’s Tongchang-ri missile facility indicate that a launch could come sometime in the next week. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in January and has been locked in a game of tit-for-tat retaliation with South Korea along the demilitarized zone.

Gitmo

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan) is asking the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to estimate how much it would cost to follow through on President Barack Obama’s plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and open a replacement facility within the United States. Previous estimates have placed a price tag of $600 million for a new facility, compared to the $400 million annual operating cost for Guantanamo Bay. Rep. Jenkins asked the CBO to include the cost of increased security in the area where the detainees from Guantanamo would be moved.

Think tanked

Want to know about the Pentagon budget? Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is your guy. On Wednesday, Harrison dropped (PDF warning!) a new 42-page look at the U.S. defense budget through the mid-2020s. The upshot? The Pentagon is going to have to find a way to deal with a 23 percent increase in costs for its major weapons programs over the next six years.

In the 2020s, the Pentagon is going to have to pay for a slew of expensive projects, including the Air Force’s new Long Range Strike Bomber and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic nuclear submarine replacement program will be on the books. And don’t forget a replacement for the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program.

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