The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Tanks in Putin’s Backyard; Stealth Planes to South China Sea

Missile shield up and running; former Marine details Iranian torture; and lots more

Spc. Christen Best
VLC1 - M1A1 Abrams from 1-72nd Armor Regiment line up in preparation to assault a town during Warrior Focus, a training exercise involving the entire 1st HBCT, Feb. 10 at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex.
Spc. Christen Best VLC1 - M1A1 Abrams from 1-72nd Armor Regiment line up in preparation to assault a town during Warrior Focus, a training exercise involving the entire 1st HBCT, Feb. 10 at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex.

 

Tanks on the Black Sea. For the first time ever, the U.S. Army has sent Abrams tanks to take part in an exercise in Georgia, on the Black Sea coast. The tanks will take part in an annual exercise on Russia’s southern flank, where Moscow fought a war in 2008. About 1,300 troops from Georgia, the U.K., and the United States will take part in the exercises that kicked off on May 11. They’ll wrap up on the 26th — Georgia’s Independence Day — which we have to admit is a nice touch. The American contingent of 650 troops more than doubles last year’s exercise, which included about 300 U.S. soldiers.

In response, the Russian foreign ministry has accused NATO of trying to destabilize the Caucasus region. “We view this consistent ‘development’ of Georgian territory by NATO soldiers as a provocative move, aiming to deliberately destabilize the military-political situation in the Caucasus region,” the ministry said in a statement.

Defense shield turned on. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has arrived in Romania for the activation of the United States’ European missile defense shield, which goes live on Thursday. The system is the culmination of a decade of work, and has been billed as a way to protect NATO from Iranian rockets. But Moscow, unsurprisingly, is unhappy that the new American technology has been placed so close its borders, claiming that Russia is the real target.

The system, based at a rural air base in Deveselu, Romania, is the first of two sites, with construction on a second site in Poland to commence later this week. Taken together, the two missile defense installations will give NATO a 24-hour early warning and defense system against Iranian missiles. “The system is not aimed against Russia,” Robert Bell, a U.S. official, told reporters.

Baltic buildup questioned. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel doesn’t like where U.S. policy with Russia is headed. Speaking at the Atlantic Council Tuesday, Hagel indicated he thinks the Obama administration should pump the brakes on its plans to send more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe. “If I were secretary of defense today, I’d be careful with this because…we can find ourselves very quickly in another Cold War buildup here, that really makes no sense for either side.”  The Pentagon’s current plans call for two American battalions to deploy to NATO’s Baltic states as a show of force. Hagel said he’s “not sure” where that buildup ends, and “I’m not sure there’s some real strategic thinking here.”

Stealth planes to the South China Sea? Well, here’s a bit of important news. Air Force magazine drops that the U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs recently deployed to the Philippines have concluded their mission there after flying just four missions over international waters and carrying out two dozen training missions. During a visit to the Philippines in April, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Warthogs would hang around for a little while after exercising with Philippine forces. The mag also reports that the Air Force is planning follow up the hogs’ visit with the arrival of an “advanced fighter jet,” which may just be the F-22 Raptor. Washington recently reached a basing agreement for U.S. forces as the island nation grows wary of Chinese territorial claims in its backyard.

Playing the game. In response to the U.S. Navy’s USS William P. Lawrence passing near Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday, China’s Defense Ministry said it was Washington’s fault that it was deploying more military hardware to the disputed islands in the waterway. In a statement, the ministry said, “the provocative actions by American military ships and planes lay bare the U.S. designs to seek gain by creating chaos in the region and again testify to the total correctness and utter necessity of China’s construction of defensive facilities on relevant islands.”

Beijing also promised to “increase the scope of sea and air patrols based on need, boost all categories of military capacity building, resolutely defend national sovereignty and security, and resolutely safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Brutal. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati was brutally tortured by his Iranian jailers during the four  years he was held by the Iranian government, he says in a new lawsuit against Tehran. The details, provided by the Marine Corps Times, are pretty bad. He was held in solitary for the first 17 months of captivity, where his jailers whipped the bottoms of his feet, tased him in the kidney area, forced him to maintain stress positions for hours, and rarely allowed him to sleep.

“Mr. Hekmati’s captors would force him to take lithium and other addictive pills and then stop giving him the pills to invoke withdrawal symptoms,” the lawsuit says. After being moved to another prison, he was thrown in a cell infested with rats, and “his skin was eaten by lice, fleas and bed bugs..”

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

China

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius talks with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about his remaining days in office at the nation’s top intelligence official. Among the revelations from Ignatius’s chat: China may be planning to implement an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. China announced the creation of an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013, an implicit assertion of sovereignty over disputed maritime territory claimed by the People’s Republic.

Yemen

U.S. troops are back in Yemen after political instability there and a war between a coalition of Gulf Arab states and the Houthi movement led the Pentagon to pull forces out of the country. The troops arrived in April and a Pentagon official tells Military Times that they’re few in number and will be staying on a short-term basis. How short-term is a matter of debate, of course. The U.S. is currently working with the United Arab Emirates to oust al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown strong and wealthy in the chaos of the war in Yemen, from the port city of Mokala. American drones and warplanes have launched a series of airstrikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen over the past several weeks, killing dozens of suspected militants.

Germany

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has proclaimed the end to a “quarter-century of shrinking” of its military end-strength. Germany will increase its military by some 7,000 military personnel and 4,400 civilians — a first since the end of the Cold War. The move is intended as a hedge against an increasingly aggressive Russia in the wake of the invasion, occupation, and annexation of parts of Ukraine. Despite the increase, Germany still falls well short of NATO’s target for members to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, clocking in at an anemic 1.2 percent.

Who’s where when

10:00 a.m. Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts Keir Giles, author of a report about the new-look Russian military, “Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West.” Livestream here.

10:00 a.m. The House Armed Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee is holding a hearing on defense industry perspectives of the Foreign Military Sales process and how to reform it, featuring Remy Nathan of the Aerospace Industries Association and M. Thomas Davis from the National Defense Industrial Association. Livestream here.

10:00 a.m. The Defense Advanced Research Agency is holding a Demo Day in the Pentagon courtyard. The sci-fi military technology outfit will be showing off its portfolio of ideas and projects across subject areas ranging from air, biology, counterterrorism, cyber, ground warfare, maritime, space, and spectrum.

11:00 a.m. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq briefs the media live from Baghdad, straight to the Pentagon Briefing Room. Livestream here.

Syria

Jane’s takes a look at Russia’s new military base in Palmyra, set up after a joint Syrian-Russian operation took the ancient city back from the Islamic State. Video of the base released by Agence France-Presse shows the presence of armored personnel carriers and a Pantsir-S1 air defense system comprised of surface-to-air missiles and 30mm guns. The presence of a base in Palmyra adds to Russia’s existing footprint outside its air base in Latakia, including bases in al-Shayrat and Tiyas, which hosts Russia’s most advanced attack helicopters.

Weapons watchers have caught sight of various models of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) in Syria since the civil war began, from the ubiquitous Cold War vintage Russian SA-7 to the less often seen Chinese FN-6. Now the open source geeks at Bellingcat report that three MANPADS seen in a March video by Islamist rebel group Liwa al-Tawheed in Aleppo appear to be QW-1 or Misagh-1 missiles. The QW-1, made by China and used by Iran under the designation “Misagh-1,” has made only brief appearances on the battlefield in Iraq, where it was used by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. forces during the American operation. A fighter from Liwa al-Tawheed contacted by Bellingcat said the missiles were captured from Assad regime forces.

Islamic State

Fed up with rocket attacks by the Islamic State across its border, Turkey sent a team of special operations forces into Syria to strike at the jihadists launching them, according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. has tried to help stem the tide of artillery across the border by directing U.S.-backed rebels to push Islamic State fighters farther away from the Turkish border. The U.S. has also announced the deployment of HIMARS guided rockets to the Turkey to help target those carrying out rocket launches.

Adding to the horror of life under the Islamic State, the group has now produced a mobile app aimed at teaching children how to read, the Long War Journal reports. And it goes exactly how you thought it might. The Islamic State’s “Office of Zeal” aims to teach the Arabic alphabet and vocabulary using jihadist themes, and the app includes games for memorizing and how to write Arabic letters using militaristic vocabulary like “tank,” “gun,” and “rocket”  — which are among the first few taught.

Sub hunters

It looks like the U.K. is about to place a $3 billion order to buy nine Boeing-made P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting planes, which are basically a militarized version of Boeing Co.’s 737 commercial airliner, but with serious surveillance capabilities.

Iran

Iranian Minister of Defense Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan announced that Iran received at least one S-300 system for its Air Defense Force, the Washington Post reports. Components from an S-300 system have been shown on the back of a truck in videos posted to social media sites as well as in Iran’s Army Day parade last month. Iran first agreed to buy the missiles, which can place non-stealth aircraft at great risk, in 2007, but Russia dropped the contract following pressure from the United States. In the summer of 2015, Russia announced that it would finally fulfill the contract.

Afghanistan

A joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raid has freed Ali Haider Gilani, the son of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Afghan officials said that the operation targeted al Qaeda forces in Paktika province near the border with Pakistan and that the discovery and rescue of the younger Gilani was a happy coincidence. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement Wednesday that the raid “demonstrates the growing capabilities and effectiveness of the Afghan security forces and is an excellent example of the strong security and intelligence partnership between Afghan and U.S. forces.”

And finally…

The Army would like you to know that, contrary to the claims of fans, it does not necessarily owe Captain America $3 million in backpay due to the seven decades he spent frozen in ice while technically still in the service. Fans on Reddit tried to calculate Cap’s back pay based on an O-3’s pay grade in 1945 along with a number of other factors. In an email to The Tribunist, an Army spokesman noted that Steve Rogers was very much fictional but that nonetheless “a wide variety of variables would have to be taken into consideration to actually calculate the true amount of back pay to which he would be entitled to receive.”

It’s all over but the shouting

How loud do Marine Corps drill instructors yell? You might not want to know, but let’s just say “very, very loud.” Enough to crap their pants.

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

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