SitRep: Chinese Fighters Intercept U.S. Spy Plane; House hits Trump
Baghdad on edge; arming Vietnam; and lots more
Unsafe at any speed. On Tuesday, two Chinese J-11 jet fighters intercepted an American surveillance plane flying over international waters in the South China Sea, the first incident of its kind since 2014. The Pentagon described the flyby as “unsafe,” as one of the Chinese jets came within about 50 feet of the U.S. Navy’s EP-3E Aries aircraft. (FP has lots more on how important the plane is, here.)
The last such incident took place in August 2014, when an armed Chinese jet harassed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft over international waters. The passby comes as tensions in the region are rising. Over the past week, China scrambled fighter jets when the USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, and Beijing complained loudly that a new Pentagon report on Chinese military capabilities “deliberately distorted” China’s defense policy.
The intercept also comes just days before President Barack Obama travels to a Group of Seven summit in Japan and visits Vietnam for the first time. While no one was hurt in the high-altitude meetup, recall that in 2001, a U.S. EP-3 collided with a Chinese J-8, killing the pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing in China.
Arming Vietnam. Much of the talk before Obama’s trip to Vietnam revolves around the White House’s upcoming decision whether or not to sell lethal arms to the communist country. FP’s Dan De Luce recently did a deep dive on the topic that you might want to revisit. Also at issue is the American desire to start sailing its ships into strategic Cam Ranh Bay, which served as a hub for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. But Hanoi has yet to endorse the idea publicly. The deep water port would give the U.S. Navy a stopping-off point on the western edge of the South China Sea, bookending the waterway with U.S. access to ports in in the Philippines on the sea’s eastern boundary. In a statement released Wednesday, Arizona republican Senator John McCain called the current arms ban “a product of our past history and an inhibitor of our future relationship.”
Baghdad not burning (yet). Baghdad has grown increasingly nervous after a series of bloody suicide bomb attacks carried out by ISIS in the capital killed over 100 civilians. But the Americans are concerned, too, reports FP’s Paul McLeary, and recently had to convince the Iraqis not to pull troops off the line near Mosul to reinforce the capital.
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him Wednesday that ISIS is trying to “regain their momentum or regain the initiative.” He added, “they believe it will cause the Iraqi government to divert forces,” and effort to Baghdad. The strikes come as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is embroiled in a major political crisis over government corruption and huge street protests by powerful Shiite groups demanding action over the flailing economy.
Yes NATO, no Trump. A bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers have cosponsored a resolution in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the bedrock international alliance that the presumptive Republican nominee for president has derided as being “outdated” and obsolete. The resolution, first obtained by FP’s John Hudson, was sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who “say the timing of the resolution is solely linked to the legislative debate over a new defense authorization bill, but both lawmakers are outspoken critics of Trump.”
The bill, so far. We’ve got months to go before there’s a final 2017 defense bill, but the House passed its version of the defense policy bill Wednesday night by a 277-147 vote. Progress? Sure. But the $610 billion bill features a whopping 120 amendments that still need to be plowed through, including one repealing the 2001 war authorization being used to cover the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and anywhere else Washington can find an ISIS fighter to bomb.
Quote of the day: U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria, on the airstrike that recently killed mid-level ISIS commander Abu Hamza:
“He was sort of a cheerleader for the local forces here. And he’s a cheerleader who will cheer no more. Because he’s dead.”
Thanks for clicking on through as we tear 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Who’s where when
5:00 p.m. Republican Senator John McCain appears at the Brookings Institution to talk about the defense bill currently making its way — in bits and pieces — though both houses of Congress. Livestream here.
The U.S. and France don’t see eye-to-eye on the command and control for a NATO missile defense system in Romania, the Wall Street Journal reports. French officials have withheld approval for the Atlantic alliance to assume control of the system, saying they want to make sure that it’s under NATO command and not just an American-controlled system with a NATO brand. U.S. officials, however, worry that any delay in the system’s development could send a signal of disunity and weakness within the alliance to Russia. The missile defense system is designed to intercept missiles from the Middle East, but Russia has opposed the system on the belief that it could pose a threat to Russian missiles.
Russia’s economy is in rough shape, but the bear’s not down yet, according to U.S. News & World Report. Western sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea — along with plunging oil prices — have taken their toll on Russia’s economy. And the recent $3.4 billion U.S. investment in deterrent capabilities in Eastern Europe would seem to put Russia on its back foot, but Moscow still has cash reserves, and Putin remains a popular guy.
Despite Russia’s recent withdrawal of some aircraft from Syria, the U.S. says Russia’s military footprint in the country hasn’t changed much, Agence France Presse reports. A U.S. spokesman for the anti-Islamic State coalition said Wednesday that Russian “capabilities are largely the same,” as what they were before the withdrawal announcement. Officials also say it’s too early to say conclusively whether or not the new Russian base in Palmyra is a permanent or temporary installation. Russian officials have claimed the facility is only a temporary step, used to house explosive ordnance disposal personnel involved in demining the ancient city.
Fallujah is in the crosshairs of an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq, Long War Journal reports. Akram Abbas al Kabi, a man double-hatted as the secretary general of Harakat al-Nujaba and U.S.-designated terrorist, said in an interview on the group’s website that it’s planning to send its “special forces” to Fallujah for an upcoming battle, pleading “vengeance” against the Islamic State. Kabi’s spokesman also said that Harakat al-Nujaba is working to secure the Fallujah-Amirayat road leading to the city and clear it of jihadists in preparation for the assault.
Iraqi police officers in the town of Bashir, just south of the city of Kirkuk, claim they were hit by artillery rounds filled with chemical weapons on May 8, and Time has unearthed some medical records that back up their claims. The records, and eyewitness accounts, say that the officers were shelled by ISIS with artillery rounds that contained sulfur mustard.
A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan has reportedly killed an al Qaeda commander. The report, originally published by Afghanistan’s TOLO News, said that Afghan special forces had claimed the strike killed the group’s Mullah Mohammad Ali. A Defense Department spokesman contacted by Fox News confirmed that a U.S. “counter-terrorism strike” had taken place in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, but declined to give further specifics, citing operational security concerns.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Israel is planning to put its Iron Dome missile defense system on board ships in order to protect offshore gas facilities from small rocket and missile threats. The naval version of Iron Dome would divvy up responsibility for protecting the facilities between radar systems placed aboard frigates and land-based missile interceptors. About half of Israel’s electricity capacity is produced with gas extracted from its offshore facilities. Israeli officials are increasingly concerned that those facilities will become targets of its enemies during the next war, citing Hamas’s 2014 attempts to target them with rockets and Hezbollah’s 2006 use of an anti-ship missile to hit an Israeli navy corvette.
Amina Ali Nkeki, one of the missing Chibok girls kidnapped by the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria, has been found. The BBC reports that the Civilian Joint Task Force vigilante group found Nkeki near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon with a baby while in the company of a suspected Boko Haram member. The suspected Boko Haram member, Mohammed Hayatu, claimed to be Nkeki’s husband. Nkeki and the baby have been sent to Maiduguri for medical care. Nkeki was one of 218 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, kicking off widespread global outrage and sparking the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, hackers have made their quadrennial migratory return to the campaign networks of U.S. presidential candidates. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center, “we’ve already had some indications” of hackers attempting to breach candidates’ systems. Clapper was mum on details, such as whether the breach attempts had been successful or who was responsible for them. Since 2008, U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney each had foreign hackers attempt to break into their campaign networks.
The House Armed Services subcommittees on seapower and readiness are planning to hold a hearing on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, but few subcommittee members are planning on attending, the DC Examiner reports. Rep. Randy Forbes, chair of the seapower subcommittee, says the floating hearing will be an opportunity to hear about readiness issues directly from servicemembers, but not all of his colleagues are so hot on the idea. Nearly half of the 35 members on both subcommittees say they’ll be skipping the event.
Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary