The Cable

SitRep: New Airstrike Rules Could Increase Civilian Casualties

FBI can’t hack it; Egypt blocking U.N. reforms; South Sudan nervous about laser-guided missiles; and lots more

ALEPPO, SYRIA - MARCH 17: A war craft belonging to the US-led coalition carries out airstrikes on Daesh terrorists' positions near the Dudyan village of Aleppo, Syria on March 18, 2016.  (Photo by Huseyin Nasir              /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MARCH 17: A war craft belonging to the US-led coalition carries out airstrikes on Daesh terrorists' positions near the Dudyan village of Aleppo, Syria on March 18, 2016. (Photo by Huseyin Nasir /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Let them drop. The Pentagon has adopted new rules to govern airstrikes against the Islamic State that would allow pilots to hit targets where they’re likely to kill civilians. The U.S. government has admitted to accidentally killing 26 civilians in Iraq and Syria over the past 20 months of airstrikes, but the newly aggressive rules could push that number much higher. The new system has put in place a system that measures how many civilian casualties are acceptable given the value of the intended target and the location of the strike.

Final authority for making the call on strikes with the highest probability of causing civilian injury rests with Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who makes the call, according to USA Today. “Before the change, there were some limited cases in which civilian casualties were allowed, the officials said. Now, however, there are several targeting areas in which the probability of 10 civilian casualties are permitted. Those areas shift depending on the time, location of the targets and the value of destroying them,” officials said.

From the Nile to the East River. Egypt is making moves at the United Nations, but it isn’t making very many friends. In recent weeks, Cairo “has quietly blocked a staunch critic of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government from a job on a U.N. human rights panel, the latest sign of Cairo’s increasing willingness to flex its diplomatic muscles at Turtle Bay,” FP’s Colum Lynch reports in an exclusive get. The move to scuttle the appointment of Yemen specialist Said Boumedouha comes just as Cairo enters the fourth month of its two-year term on the U.N. Security Council. And what a four months it’s been. Lynch reminds us that in that time, Cairo “has watered down Security Council measures designed to combat rights abuses from Burundi to the Central African Republic. During its presidency of the 15-nation council in May, Egypt plans to host a public debate on the need to fight incitement to terrorism and extremism, a move that Western diplomats suspect is aimed at securing international legitimacy for squelching free speech at home.”

Major Lazer. People are on edge in South Sudan’s capital of Juba, awaiting the delayed arrival of former vice president-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar. He was supposed to show up on Monday as part of a long-awaited peace deal both he and his rival, President Salva Kiir, signed in August. But South Sudan’s Ministry of Information said in a written statement Tuesday that Machar had “called off his arrival indefinitely,” according to FP’s Siobhan O’Grady. Why? It could have something to do with the arsenal of anti-tank missiles, laser-guided missiles, and heavy machine guns that he insisted on bringing along with him.

Hack-a-thon. With the help of a shadowy outside hackers, the FBI finally managed to hack into the encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers. But don’t expect that to work the next time, bureau officials told lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. FP’s Elias Groll writes that the hack of the phone hasn’t made federal officials feel any better about the increasingly sophisticated encryption technologies available to the public, and “the FBI’s top science official said that such hacking techniques aren’t a viable long-term solution,” to the problem.

Congress not happy. On Tuesday, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) fired off a letter to President Barack Obama calling for an investigation into testimony the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave to Congress last year about sexual assault cases in the military.  During his testimony, then-Navy Adm. James Winnefeld said that if a bill seeking to reform how the Pentagon handles cases of sexual assault passed, fewer sexual-assault cases in the military would go to trial.

In his testimony and in a follow-up letter, Winnefeld said that between 2010 and 2013, there were a total of 93 cases where civilian prosecutors refused to take on sexual-assault cases, forcing military commanders to take them to court-martial. But an advocacy group, Protect Our Defenders, obtained Army and Marine Corps documents that show Winnefeld’s comments were largely untrue. In 81 of the 93 cases, “there was not one example of a commander ‘insisting’ a case be prosecuted,” the report says.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we rip through another week 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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.


China has sentenced a disgruntled former government employee to death for espionage, Reuters reports. Huang Yu, a computer technician in an unnamed Chinese government agency, sold 150,000 classified documents to an unspecified foreign country, according to state media. He met with his handlers in Hong Kong and across southeast Asia, where he passed along documents detailing military and economic issues. Huang reportedly spied because he was angry over being fired for poor performance.

China has shown off its latest drone, a loitering munition that bears a distinct resemblance to the U.S. Switchblade UAV made AeroVironment. IHS Jane’s got a glimpse of the aircraft, the CH-901 made by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, at the Defense Services Asia 2016 exhibition in Malaysia. The small drone can be launched from a tube and loiter over a target area until given the command to dive and crash into it, exploding a warhead on board. Loitering munitions have become an increasingly popular in recent years with the U.S., U.K., and Israel developing different models.

North Korea

North Korea’s hackers are actually pretty darn good at their jobs, according to the commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific. Army Gen. Vincent Brooks testified that North Korean hackers “are among the best in the world and the best-organized.” The U.S. got a taste of North Korea’s cyber skills in November 2014 when, according to the FBI, hackers working for Pyongyang dumped heaps of data stolen from Sony in retaliation for a Seth Rogen comedy film mocking Kim Jong-Un. Brooks also testified that much of the North’s conventional weaponry is ossified, Cold War vintage equipment and that Kim Jong un is “more aggressive” than his late father, Kim Jong Il.


Turkey wants the anti-Islamic State coalition to pitch in more and loosen the rules of engagement in order to help it deal with attacks along its border. The border town of Kilis has come under heavy Islamic State rocket fire over the past few weeks. Turkish artillery has had trouble hitting fighters launching the rockets given that they’re often highly mobile, attacking from motorcycles. Turkish officials say they’d like to ask the coalition to preemptively hit mobile targets.


Iran has sent commandos and special forces troops from its regular army to Syria, but that’s not the only place they’ve been active. Offiziere’s Galen Wright traces the Artesh Ground Forces’ special forces deployments in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan over the past few years, breaking down the various units involved. Since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, the Artesh Ground Forces commander has successfully leveraged the threat of the Islamic State to expand funding for and the reach of the services commando and special forces units.

Eastern Europe

Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia are top sources of illicit small arms for terrorists in Europe, the Economist reports. Guns from the Balkans have shown up in the November 2015 Paris attacks, the January 2015 attack on the Paris-based Charlie Hebdo magazine, and in the apartment of a terrorist suspect arrested in France in March. Many of the weapons are aftermarket leftovers from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, later smuggled into Europe. But a number of them are also diverted from bulk purchases made by Western countries in order to arm allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The ceasefire in Syria is showing increased signs of strain as warplanes bombed a Syrian town that is actually opposed to the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters whom Russia and the Assad regime claim to be targeting since the agreement was implemented. The Washington Post reports that the estimated death toll in the attack on Maarat al-Numan ranges could be as high as 51 people and include women and children. Whether the attack was carried out by Russian or Syrian planes remains unclear.

Just crazy enough to work. Maybe.

Space launch company Orbital ATK wants to buy up Cold War vintage nuclear missiles and convert them into launch vehicles for satellites. Orbital’s competitors in the launch business have argued against the plan, saying that the sale of the old school missiles would amount to an unfair government subsidy. House Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has tried to split the baby, arguing that Orbital could use the missile to knock lingering space debris out of orbit. That idea, however, might not go down well with the Defense Department, which took great umbrage when China carried out what it said was a thinly-veiled anti-satellite weapon test under the guise of taking out an defunct satellite — an act which itself created more space debris.

Budget lines

A few congressional committees are taking their first crack at marking up the 2017 defense budget this week. Here are some of the highlights from what will, as usual, be a convoluted, months-long process.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) top line authorization for shipbuilding is $20.6 billion, including an extra $2.3 billion on top of what the Obama administration asked for.

HASC’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee pumps the breaks a bit on Secretary Ash Carter’s outreach to Silicon Valley via the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), holding up a fifth of the organization’s funding until the Pentagon forks over a report outlining how it’s been using its funding.

Will the F-22 make a comeback? The House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee thinks that maybe capping the number of F-22’s at 187 aircraft as a mistake (the original plan was to build 749), and wants to Air Force to think about buying some more.

The ratio of civilians to military personnel is at its highest level since the Department of Defense was created, according to CSIS’s budget geeks.

Pentagon’s like, “we need to close more bases.” Congress is like, “no way.” Pentagon’s like, “well, maybe we’ll just go ahead and do it anyway.”


Photo Credit:  Huseyin Nasir /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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