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Situation Report: Major ISIS military leader killed (probably); South China Sea gets malls; North Korean nukes; Iran fires up; more Russian military cuts; and lots more

Situation Report: Major ISIS military leader killed (probably); South China Sea gets malls; North Korean nukes; Iran fires up; more Russian military cuts; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Big if true. In what would be the biggest blow the U.S. has dealt the leadership of the Islamic State, U.S. military officials believe they killed Abu Omar al-Shishani — also known as Omar the Chechen — in an airstrike in Syria on March 4. Military officials sounded pretty confident they got their guy on Tuesday, even though there have been plenty of reports of the militant’s death in Syria throughout 2014 and 2015.

Shishani is a major figure in the terror group’s military hierarchy, and has been described as its “minister of war.” He is believed to have died along with about 12 other militants in a series of U.S. airstrikes near the town of Shadadi, which was recently retaken by U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces. The Islamic State reportedly sent him to Shadadi to help stem battlefield losses and bolster the morale of fighters.

“He was a perfect soldier.” The Georgian-born Shishani served in the Georgian military and fought against Russia before heading to Syria to link up with the Islamic State. For more, the best backgrounder comes from Mitchell Prothero, who dug into the militant’s past last September. One former comrade in Georgia said that he “was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star. We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

Here we go again. The Pentagon wants to take another crack at training and equipping Syrian fighters to take on the Islamic State. Undaunted by the failure of its $500 million effort last year to build a force of several thousand fighters — a program that only ended up producing “four or five” fighters, according to one infamous military assessment — the military is having another go at it.

“I’ve asked for permission to restart the effort by using a different approach,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.  Austin said he wanted to focus on training smaller numbers of fighters in specialized skills. “As we reintroduce those people back into the fight, they will be able to enable the larger groups that they’re a part of,” he said. “The training would be shorter. But again, I think they would be able to greatly enable the forces once they’re reintroduced.”

Island life. Woody Island in the South China Sea recently exploded into the headlines after Beijing installed advanced surface-to-air missiles on the contested speck of land. But other than a few satellite pictures and lots of rhetoric, we haven’t had a real look at what China is actually doing on islands like Woody, which are claimed by several different countries. But FP contributor Joanna Chiu reveals that Woody, at least, features a lot more than a few missile batteries.

Beijing first sent a handful of people to live there in the late 1970s, but the population has since grown to about 1,000. And while those first residents lived in sparse huts, today residents “eat at restaurants and teahouses, send letters from a post office, receive medical treatment at a hospital, and shop for clothes and electronics at several small department stores. Sansha even has its own state broadcaster, Sansha TV.” In other words, while not officially Chinese, the island has become part of China. The attitude in Beijing over who owns the islands in the South China Sea was summed up nicely by foreign minister, Wang Yi on Tuesday: “China was the first country to discover, name, develop and manage the South China Sea islands. History will prove who is a mere guest and who is a real host.”

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep. 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.

Iran

Iran carried out a series of ballistic missile tests from underground silos on Tuesday in exercises dubbed “The Power of Velayat,” as the U.S. promised diplomatic retaliation. Iran claims the missiles in Tuesday’s exercise have ranges of up to 2,000 kilometers, which if true would put Israel within striking distance. U.S. diplomats say they’re cooking up an “appropriate response” to the tests. And FP’s John Hudson reports that some members of Congress are pushing for more sanctions, and more action by Washington. The missile exercises don’t violate the recently-signed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran, but the U.S. says they do violate preexisting United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting ballistic missile tests.

Yemen

The almost year-long war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement in Yemen may be nearing an end. Reuters reports that a delegation of Houthi leaders lead by Mohammed Abdel-Salam arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday for talks to negotiate an end to the war which has killed 6,000 people and displaced 2.4 million people. The fighting in Yemen has slowed recently but Iran’s deputy chief of staff Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri floated the possibility that Iran could send advisors to support Houthi fighters as it has with the Assad regime in Syria.

Russia

Russia is scrapping plans to expand the Russian Airborne Troops from 45,000 to 60,000, Jane’s reports. Russia had been planning on using a newly-enlarged airborne force to buttress its rapid reaction forces, but the newspaper Izvestia claims that the Ministry of Defense chose to focus on rearming the force instead of expanding it. Russia’s economy has been choked by both Western sanctions and declining global oil prices recently, forcing cutbacks in government including a proposed five percent reduction in the defense budget for next year.

The Treasury Department has no plans to apply sanctions to NPO Energomash, the Russian company that supplies the RD-180 engines which the U.S. Air Force is dependent on to launch satellites into space. Bloomberg reports that the Office of Foreign Assets Control told the Defense Department last week that the restructuring of NPO Energomash won’t lead to sanctions against the company — a reaffirmation of Treasury’s 2014 position on the issue. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has campaigned hard against the Air Force’s use of Russian engines, seeking to cut the number the U.S. purchases. Air Force officials have pledged to wean the service off the use of RD-180s over time by supporting the development of domestic alternatives.

Philippines

The U.S. is planning to send two hand-me-down C-130 cargo planes to the Philippines to help the country’s armed forces military modernization plans. The planes will add to the Philippines existing stock of three C-130s with the first aircraft arriving this month and the second expected to arrive by September. The Philippines has recently increased its defense spending in response to growing territorial clashes with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

South Korea

Annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises taking place right now have added a new training scenario that’s enraging the already irritated North Korea: decapitation strikes against North Korean leadership. South Korean media have reported that this year’s exercises involve hypothetical attacks against North Korea’s military leadership — up to and including Kim Jong Un — aimed at paralyzing the North’s centralized decision-making structures. While North Korea is generally extra cranky around this time of year due to the annual joint exercises, the whiff of leadership targeting has upped the ante this year, with threats of war by “ground, naval, underwater, air and cyber warfare means, including nuclear strike means.”

North Korea

In a related story, North Korea claims to have miniaturized a nuclear warhead. On Tuesday, state news released photographs of Kim Jong Un posing alongside what appeared to be either a nuclear implosion device or the “primary” for a thermonuclear weapon. The pictures released on Tuesday show North Korean KN-08 ballistic missiles in the background alongside the apparent nuclear device, suggesting that the North may plan to mate the nuclear device depicted onto the KN-08.

Army

What do you get if you’re an Army acquisition program that has actually come in on time and on budget? You have to give up some of your budget to help fund the service’s infamous failballoon. That’s the fate of the Army’s Humvee replacement, the JLTV, which will likely take an $11 million cut to help fund the JLENS surveillance blimp. The Army isn’t ready to give up on the long-troubled JLENS, despite cost overruns and the embarrassing incident last year when it broke free from its tethers and went joyriding through southern Pennsylvania. That $11 million poached from the JLTV will go toward the $27 million the Army wants to spend on JLENS next year.

Have you tried turning it on and off again?

The F-35 has a radar glitch that pilots have had to fix by turning the radar systems off and on again. According to Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the problem occurred when pilots would receive a radar degrade or a radar fail signal, which would require them to restart the system. Lockheed Martin is reportedly at work on delivering a software fix for the issue by the end of the month. IT departments across the country can only shake their heads.

Bots o’ war

The Pentagon tested out swarms of tiny mini-drones shot out canisters from F-16 and F/A 18 fighter jets flying over Alaska this summer, the Washington Post reports. What exactly those jet-borne swarm drones can do remains classified, but they’re the brainchild of the secretive ‘s Strategic Capabilities Office, a $3 billion a year office tasked with coming up with ideas to counter the rise of Russia and China’s increasingly advanced weapons systems.

Tweets you want back

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been working hard to retain a Republican majority on Capitol Hill, an effort that included sending out a tweet Tuesday stating that Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D.-Ill.) “Has a sad record of not standing up for our veterans.” Duckworth, as everyone but this particular social media professional knows, is a U.S. Army combat veteran who lost both legs in combat in Iraq.

And finally…

A belated happy birthday to a veteran and all-American hero, Marvel’s Col. Nick Fury (USA) who turned 53 on Monday.