SitRep: Fanning In As Army Secretary; Russian Missile Trains Are Back
Generals playing politics; China planning a sea wall against U.S. subs; and lots more
Pentagon gains by Obama losing. The Senate finally confirmed Eric Fanning as Secretary of the Army on Tuesday, after his nomination was blocked for months over one senator’s concerns that prisoners from Guantanamo Bay would be sent to detention facilities in his state. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts lifted his hold after Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told him, essentially, that the administration would fail in its efforts to close the facility by time President Barack Obama leaves office in January. “Practically speaking, the clock has run out for the president,” Roberts said on the Senate floor.
Work’s statement was a little more circumspect. He said he told Roberts, “there is limited time left,” in this administration to win congressional support (and funding) to move detainees to facilities in the U.S. But, a jab: “I made clear that we have not taken any location off the table for relocating Guantanamo detainees,” he said. Fanning was nominated in September, and is the first openly gay civilian to head a branch of the U.S. armed forces.
Medals for participation. How involved should former generals and admirals be in presidential politics? The 2016 election has been a strange one, and the number of retired and active-duty leaders who have been sucked into the fray — or jumped in willingly — has been higher than ever. FP’s Yochi Dreazen, Dan De Luce and Molly O’Toole dive into the scrum themselves, pointing out that two retired officers, Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. James Mattis, have already been recruited to run. Mullen “seriously considered” acting as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s running mate before deciding against it, and Mattis has rebuffed efforts from Republicans to mount a last-minute campaign for president as a counter-weight to Donald Trump. With Trump and Hillary Clinton still looking for running mates, who knows what’ll happen next.
No control. Almost half of Americans think that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is doing more harm than good, but no one quite seems to know what to do about it. That’s the upshot of a new Point Taken- Marist Poll which finds 49 percent of Americans take this dim view, with Republicans leading the way at 57 percent, and 42 percent of Democrats. Here’s where it gets tricky, however. Given the choice where Washington should concentrate its diplomatic and military efforts, 53 percent said the Middle East, which includes 58 percent of Republicans, 53 percent Democrats, and 55 percent Independents. So, there’s that.
Spy games. Accused spy, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin, pleaded not guilty to espionage charges and requested a trial by jury during a military court appearance in Norfolk, Va. Tuesday. The government has charged Lin with giving classified information to Taiwan and possibly China. But as FP reported earlier this month, Lin’s civilian lawyer says that the FBI entrapped his client in a sting operation, and maintains he didn’t pass on any classified information.
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Well, here’s an item the Pentagon might be able to add to next year’s report on the strength of China’s navy. Beijing is working on a pretty serious new kind of anti-access/area denial system designed to keep American submarines at bay. IHS Jane’s has gotten its hands on the China State Shipbuilding Corporation pitch for an “Underwater Great Wall.” The system would comprise a network of sensors both above and below the water to listen for the approach of enemy subs. The components of the package include sonar systems, ships, and unmanned undersea vehicles, among others.
U.S. tanks being shipped to Europe, American infantry units training to fight in the continent’s eastern precincts, U.S. Army tank crews losing gunnery competitions to the Germans. Sure sounds like the Cold War. But now we can add another hit from the 80s to the list: missile trains. In response to the opening of a NATO missile defense site in Romania, with another under construction in Poland, Russia is apparently dusting off its old rail missile systems, but this time, they’ll be harder to detect than their lumbering, Soviet-era grandfathers.
Each train — which Russian officials say will be operational by 2020 — will be stacked with six MS-26 Rubezh missiles. The trains themselves, which were taken out of service in 2007, have received some serious upgrades. While the multiple engines required to haul old-school missiles around made the train an easy mark through satellite imagery, new, lighter missiles will allegedly make the trains indistinguishable from normal, non-ballistic trains
A new Human Rights Watch report goes into painful detail about what life looks like on the ground for civilians in the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte, Libya. The group — which has at least 1,800 fighters in and around the city, has diverted food and medicine to its own fighters, and carried out dozens of executions of civilians since August. The rights group reports that “Sirte residents described scenes of horror—public beheadings, corpses in orange jumpsuits hanging from scaffolding in what they referred to as ‘crucifixions,’ and masked fighters snatching men from their beds in the night.” U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that there are as many as 6,000 ISIS militants in Libya, but the Libyan government on Tuesday said they had captured a key ISIS checkpoint near the city of Misrata.
The AP gets a little bit more info on the new Russian base in Palmyra. Moscow says its outpost, established after a Russian-backed offensive kicked the Islamic State out of the ancient city, is only temporary and is being used to house explosive ordnance disposal experts who are currently removing mines and booby-traps left behind by the jihadist group. Russia built the base on a UNESCO World Heritage site, a choice with which Syria’s Antiquities and Museums Chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, is not entirely pleased. Nonetheless, a Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman says Russian forces got the okay for the base from the Syrian government.
Tensions among powerful Shiite political factions are rising and threatening to break out into open conflict, Reuters reports. According to the wire service, armed gunmen from the Saraya al-Khorasani militia took positions around protesters aligned with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr earlier this month after they broke into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The menacing move raised the prospect of Iraq returning to the bad old days of 2008 when Sadr-aligned forces duked it out with Iraqi troops in the city of Basra.
The Army is investigating claims by researcher Brian Siddall that the late Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley may have made worn unearned awards and exaggerated his service record, according to a report from Military.com. Plumley was one of the men depicted in the book by Joe Galloway and retired Lt. Gen. Harold Moore We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, later made into a Hollywood movie in 2002. The Army awarded Plumley a Silver Star for his actions during the 1965 battle in the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam for removing a flare and putting out fires in a box of grenades while under intense fire. Siddall contends that later in life Plumley wore two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars, among other alleged exaggerations.
What does an investment of $50 million buy you in Afghanistan? A long-running program that no one is sure is really working. After years of offering Taliban fighters cash payments for laying down their arms, the American-funded program has only had 11,077 militants take the offer, “and officials of what is called the High Peace Council can’t be sure how many remained loyal to the government,” according to a report in the Washington Post. What’s more, “in a country awash in weapons, only 9,800 have been handed over. Auditors have also struggled to track of how the public-works money, including $50 million from the United States, has been spent.” Sounds about right for how Washington has spent money in Afghanistan over the years.
Who’s where when
2:00 p.m. The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts, “Chemical Weapons in the Middle East: Accountability and Deterrence” at their HQ in Washington. The panel includes Wa’el Alzayat, senior policy advisor to the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N.; Dr. Mohamad Katoub, Turkey advocacy manager, Syrian American Medical Society; Shaun Coughlin, foreign affairs officer, Office of Global Criminal Justice, State Department; and Robert Friedman of the Legal Adviser’s Office for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, State Department. As a read-ahead, there’s this: The Syrian American Medical Society released a report in March contending that since 2012, there have been 161 chemical attacks in Syria, with 14,581 victims, and at least 1,141 deaths.
Bots o’ war
The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog runs a piece by the University of Oklahoma’s Aqil Shah about his recent field research on drone strikes in Pakistan. The piece challenges the popular argument that drone strikes create a “blowback” effect by predominantly killing civilians, rather than militants, and driving up terrorist recruitment from popular outrage. Shah interviewed 147 people from Waziristan and found that “79 percent of the respondents endorsed drones,” and a further 56 percent stated their belief that the strikes didn’t often hit civilians.
The Navy is preparing to send robots to do some underwater explosive ordnance disposal. Defense One reports on the service’s new Saab Waterborne Anti-IED Security Platform, conveniently acronymed as SEA WASP, made by Saab. The SEA WASPs are relatively small at just 200 pounds and will be used to dive in vital waterways to hunt for mines placed by enemy forces.
Photo Credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary