The Cable

Situation Report: Chinese fighters to disputed islands; Mosul up next; CIA chief speaks out; U.S. officials hawkish on Russia; airstrikes rising in Afghanistan; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Spotted. On the same day Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, reports emerged that China has sent fighter planes to Woody Island in the South China Sea, the same place Beijing deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries in recent weeks. ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Spotted. On the same day Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, reports emerged that China has sent fighter planes to Woody Island in the South China Sea, the same place Beijing deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries in recent weeks.

The deployment is small — fewer than 10 aircraft, a U.S. official told Fox News — but the Chinese J-11s Flanker and JH-7s Flounder aircraft represent a significant increase in Chinese combat power in the disputed Paracel Island chain.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told a Senate panel in Washington that Chinese missile deployments to Woody Island, along with new radars and runways on small, man-made islands in the region are changing “the operational landscape” in the South China Sea. “China seeks hegemony in East Asia,” he said, adding, “China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea, and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise.”

Good timing. Harris will undoubtedly face questions about the latest Chinese deployment Wednesday when he appears before the House Armed Services Committee at 10:00 a.m. alongside Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander, U.S. Forces Korea. Watch here.

The road to Mosul. The Iraqi army will likely need to deploy between eight and 12 army brigades to liberate Mosul from the grip of the Islamic State, according to a U.S. general in charge of training Iraqi forces.

“We are making plans for Mosul,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference from Baghdad Tuesday. “We’re doing that each and every day.” The exact number of troops is still in flux, as Iraqi brigades can range in size from about 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers.

U.S. troops deployed near ISIS territory. A handful of American troops are already in place near Mosul, and have been setting up a forward operating base from which Iraqi troops will launch any future assault on the city. The Nineveh Operations Center in the small village of Makhmour will eventually house about 4,500 Iraqi soldiers who will be in the lead of the fight for Mosul. The base also houses a new command center for the Iraqi army’s 15th Division, which ran through an American-led training program last year.

And Iraqi officials look ready to go. Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi said earlier this month that Iraqi forces expect to start the Mosul operation “no later than the first half of this year,” while Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has predicted that 2016 would see a “final victory” against the group.

Proceed to jail. Would the U.S. intel community rather capture and interrogate terrorists than kill them? CIA Director John Brennan says, “absolutely.” In a wide-ranging interview with NPR released Wednesday, Brennan said that even without Guantanamo Bay, he’s still got plenty of options. Depending on where a suspect was captured, “I think whatever prevailing legal systems were there at the time, it would be addressed that way,” he said. “So a lot of these individuals are put into the judicial system, or the penal system of the country where they’re captured.”

The issue of what to do with detainees was raised recently by analysts concerned about what American commandos will do with ISIS operatives they might capture in Iraq and Syria, given that the U.S. no longer runs any officially acknowledged detention facilities in the region.

Cold water. A group of President Barack Obama’s top advisors have little faith in Moscow’s willingness to abide by the Syrian cease-fire due to start later this week. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director John Brennan have all called for strong measures to be taken against the Russians if they don’t abide by the accord, according to the Wall Street Journal. “The emerging alliance of Russia hawks exposes discord among defense and diplomatic officials and could put pressure on Mr. Obama to take stronger action against Moscow. But doing so risks pulling the U.S. deeper into a proxy fight in Syria, with Moscow showing little sign of lessening its support for President Bashar al-Assad.”

Bombs away. Are U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan increasing? Afghan military officials claim that a recent spate of U.S. strikes on Taliban positions north of Kabul drove a group of the insurgents away, allowing the government to repair electric cables pumping power to the capital. U.S. officials have said they have no information on American airstrikes there, however. And there are other reports that U.S. drone strikes in Nangarhar province killed 22 Islamic State fighters in recent days.

The rules of engagement for American forces in Afghanistan state that the U.S. cannot strike Taliban fighters unless they’re directly threatening U.S. troops. “We don’t have the authority to target the Taliban and we don’t specifically target the Taliban based on affiliation,” U.S. spokesman Brig. Gen. Al Shoffner recently told reporters. Islamic State fighters, however, are fair game. Spokesman Col. Michael Lawhorn emails FP that there are no specific stats for how many airstrikes the U.S. has carried about against ISIS in the group’s Nangarhar stronghold, but ISIS is “largely confined to about 4 districts in southern Nangarhar, out of the 404 districts in Afghanistan. They’re a potential strategic threat, but overall, [the strikes are] a small part of our mission here, which remains largely the train, advise, and assist mission.”

Morning, all. Thanks for clicking on through to kick off the last full week of February. 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

Social media imagery from Syrian Kurdish militants appears to show militants using Javelin anti-tank guided missiles in a sign that Washington has stepped up its supply of weaponry to the group, the Washington Post reports. An image posted on Twitter Tuesday shows a Kurdish fighter in Shaddadi, where U.S.-backed YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces have been fighting the Islamic State, standing astride a Javelin missile, a light, portable anti-tank missile which can be shoulder-fired. A video released earlier this week also shows a missile slamming into an Islamic State vehicle-borne suicide bomb, which the Post reports is very likely a Javelin.

A group of Russian open source intelligence bloggers say they’ve found photos that prove Russia has at least some ground forces deployed in Syria. The Conflict Intelligence Team issued a report rounding up what they claim are selfies taken by Russian ground troops in Syria. The group also zeroed in on the specific camouflage pattern of a single Russian T-90 tank, using it to show the vehicle’s movement from western to eastern Syria over the course of the past few months.

Iraq

It’s not just U.S. troops returning to Iraq since the battle against the Islamic State has heated up. Defense One reports that there are now eight times as many contractors working for the Pentagon in Iraq than there were a year ago. The Defense Department had 2,028 contractors in Iraq in January, up from just 250 in January 2015. The State Department has another 5,800 contractors in the country.

Kurdish forces in Iraq have freed a 16 year old Swedish girl lured to the country by the Islamic State. Sweden’s The Local reports that the girl first traveled to Syria while pregnant to follow her boyfriend as he joined up with a militant group, later moving on to Iraq. Kurdish officials say the operation to rescue her was pulled off “without clashes or the arrest of any gunmen” and that the girl is now safe and will be handed over to Swedish authorities shortly.

Iran

FP contributor Jeffrey Lewis and Melissa Hanham have snagged satellite imagery showing preparations for Iran’s upcoming Simorgh rocket launch. The imagery suggests that Iran is fueling the rocket and shows an uptick in activity at the launch site. Those preparations, taken together with a Notice to Airmen Iran issued near the launch site warning aircraft to steer clear of the area on March 1-2, suggest that Iran’s promised satellite launch may take place next week.

Asia

The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) blog takes a closer look at the new radar systems China installed on a man-made island in the Spratly archipelago and finds that they might present a risk to U.S. stealth aircraft. Analysts tell USNI that the systems seen in satellite imagery released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies are likely high frequency radars. High frequency radars can be used to indicate generally that stealth aircraft are nearby but can’t quite put a lock on them. Those radar systems, however, may serve as a tripwire for more advanced Chinese radars to search for more precise coordinates on incoming stealth aircraft.

U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris is urging the U.S. to hurry up and ship Lockheed’s new long range anti-ship missile (LRASM) to the field, Bloomberg reports. The missile, part of a series of weapons that the Pentagon has highlighted to counter Russia and China, can take out ships from extended ranges and are slated for use by B-1B bombers and F/A-18E/F fighter jets.

FOIA

The Small Arms Survey’s Matt Schroeder gets his hands on Defense Intelligence Agency docs on the improvised daeshmobiles of war.

And finally…

Enjoy some creepy new footage of people abusing sophisticated robots from Boston Dynamics, the now Google-owned technology company that specializes in making you anxious about the future.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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