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SitRep: More Trouble in the South China Sea

U.S. knocks in Mosul, kills civilian; South Korea buying more sats, ships; Qatar getting high-tech missiles; and lots more

PACAF A-10s, HH-60s fly first Air Contingent missions in Philippines
PACAF A-10s, HH-60s fly first Air Contingent missions in Philippines

 

More trouble in the South China Sea. As China continues to push its territorial claims further out in the South China Sea, a new area of concern is emerging just 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines: the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese ships have been observed conducting surveys around the reefs and rocks, leading to worries that a new Chinese land reclamation effort would soon begin in the area, adding tension to an increasingly volatile situation. In response, the U.S. has started ramping up its activity in the area, flying three air patrols near Scarborough in recent days.

The first flight took place just after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines earlier this month. In a U.S. Air Force news release, Col. Larry Card, the air contingent commander based at Clark Air Base in the Philippines said, “our job is to ensure air and sea domains remain open in accordance with international law.” There are four U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt fighters and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters taking part in the missions, and all are based at Clark.

 

More trouble in the South China Sea. As China continues to push its territorial claims further out in the South China Sea, a new area of concern is emerging just 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines: the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese ships have been observed conducting surveys around the reefs and rocks, leading to worries that a new Chinese land reclamation effort would soon begin in the area, adding tension to an increasingly volatile situation. In response, the U.S. has started ramping up its activity in the area, flying three air patrols near Scarborough in recent days.

The first flight took place just after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines earlier this month. In a U.S. Air Force news release, Col. Larry Card, the air contingent commander based at Clark Air Base in the Philippines said, “our job is to ensure air and sea domains remain open in accordance with international law.” There are four U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt fighters and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters taking part in the missions, and all are based at Clark.

Plugging the holes. Is the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria drying up? According to the U.S. military, it may be. The flood of fighters has dropped from roughly 2,000 a month last year about 200, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, deputy commander for operations for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State told reporters Tuesday.

The slide comes along with reports that the group has been having trouble paying its fighters, is facing an increasing number of desertions, and has lost at least 20,000 to U.S. airstrikes over the past 20 months. The U.S. intelligence community has also estimated that there are about 19,000 to 25,000 ISIS fighters in the field, down from an estimated  20,000 to 31,500 in previous years.

Knock knock. The U.S. military ripped a page out of the Israeli warfighting playbook earlier this month, when it used a “roof knock” on an Islamic State site in Mosul to warn civilians away before delivering the fatal blow. Israel used the tactic in the 2014 war in Gaza, where its pilots would explode a bomb above the roof of a building to scare civilians away, and then obliterate the structure with a direct hit. Gersten said that while a woman the U.S. observed living in the house initially ran away, she went back in while the missile was en route, and is believed to have been killed. The strike took place Apr. 5 on an ISIS financial storage center in Mosul, Iraq, targeting a “major distributor” of funds to fighters. The building was thought to hold about $150 million in cash.

No planes, but missiles! Qatar may or may not be getting dozens of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets — the Obama administration can’t make up its mind about the sale as FP’s Dan DeLuce recently reported — but it is picking up over 250 advanced surface-to-air missiles made by U.S. defense powerhouse Raytheon. The Pentagon has given the nod to the sale, which awaits congressional approval. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said the $260 million sale would “improve the security of a friendly country,” and since “Qatar is an important force for political stability and economic progress in the (Gulf) region,” the proposed sale will provide the country “with military capabilities to protect its naval forces and nearby oil/gas infrastructure from air and missile threats.”

Thanks for clicking on through as we crank 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: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

South Korea

South Korea is putting increased emphasis on its anti-submarine warfare capabilities in response to North Korea’s recent test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. South Korean defense officials tell Yonhap News that they’re working on integrating a three-layered anti-submarine defense plan with the United States military.. To track the subs, the South will launch five satellites and buy more Aegis-equipped ships. South Korea also plans to buy more Type 214 submarines and Wildcat anti-submarine warfare helicopters to help destroy North Korean subs in the event of war and will rely on PAC-3 and SM-2 ballistic missile interceptors to try and knock down missiles fired by the vessels.

Inherent Resolve

The U.S. will send the Army’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rocket launcher system to Turkey in order to help the NATO ally deal with the threat from the Islamic State along its border, Reuters reports. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that the U.S. would deploy the system to the southeast of the country in May. Turkey has complained to coalition allies about the uptick in rocket attacks along its border from motorcycle-borne Islamic State fighters.

The U.K. has used its biggest bunker buster bombs for the first time, dropping them on Islamic State targets in Iraq last week, IHS Jane’s reports. A British Tornado jet dropped two 2,000 lb. Enhanced Paveway III bombs against underground tunnels dug by the jihadist group in western Iraq. The Islamic State has used networks of tunnels in captured towns in both Syria and Iraq in order to hide fighters from allied airstrikes.

Iran

The AP reports that Iran is threatening to sue the U.S. to stop it from handing over $2 billion of Iranian money to plaintiffs who successfully sued the country for compensation over the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. The nuclear agreement with Iran calls on the U.S. to release Iranian funds frozen as part of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the judgment won by families affected by the attacks can be taken out of the funds set to be unfrozen. Iran says it will take the U.S. to the International Court of Justice, but there are questions about whether the court would have jurisdiction.

Russia

Alexander Fomin, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, offered some hints about Russia’s arms trade with Iran, Tass news agency reports. Fomin said Russia is currently talking to Iran about deals to supply it with weapons permitted under the United Nations sanctions, a spectrum which includes small arms, non-lethal equipment and electronic warfare systems. Fomin also said that deliveries of the S-300 air defense systems to Iran are proceeding according to schedule. In a separate Tass piece, Fomin ruled out the possibility of S-300 sales to Syria.

Germany

Germany’s top spy is out and everyone’s is left wondering why. German officials tell Reuters that Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), was sacked and will be replaced by Bruno Kahl from the country’s finance ministry. Officials, however, have been mum on a reason for the removal. Schindler was a controversial figure in German politics for his relationship with the U.S. National Security Agency. The personnel switch comes amid increased fears in Europe over the threat of Islamic State attacks and concerns over insufficient intelligence sharing among countries there.

Navy

China isn’t the only country the U.S. has challenged with freedom of navigation exercises. A new Pentagon report says the U.S. carried out freedom of navigation operations near a dozen other countries in 2015, down from a total of 19 in 2014, according to Reuters. The countries in this year’s total include Argentina, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, the Maldives, Oman, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Defense Department didn’t provide a specific tally of how many such missions it carried out, either in aggregate or individually.

Marines

The U.S. Naval Academy has removed another instructor, Marine Maj. ­Michael Pretu, following sexual misconduct accusations against him from a student, according to the Washington Post. The charges against Pretu make him the second Naval Academy instructor publicly charged with ethics violations related to sex in recent years. In 2013 Marine Maj. Mark Thompson was convicted of having a sexual relationship with two students. The accusations against Pretu date to 2011 but a subsequent 2014 investigation stalled following his refusal to cooperate with investigators.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.

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