SitRep: Details on Mullah Mansour Strike; Talking Trump in South Sudan
U.S. commandos worried about ISIS in Asia; frozen out of the Arctic; and lots more
TAMPA–Greetings from the SOFIC Special Operations conference here in Tampa, Fla., where Wednesday is another day packed with top brass taking the stage and checking out all the gear that the defense industry wants to sell. A few highlights of the day include a demo of the Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit — a protective, lightweight exoskeleton that U.S. commandos will one day wear — and a helicopter and fast boat demonstration in the canal next to the convention center.
More details about Taliban strike. Kicking things off down here on Tuesday, President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security advisor, Lisa Monaco, confirmed that it was a team of “SOF and intelligence professionals,” that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan over the weekend. And the Wall Street Journal gives us a tick-tock of the strike launched by two Joint Special Operations Command drones that took out Mansour after he crossed the border from Iran.
Next in line. The Taliban are getting after it, announcing Wednesday they selected a new leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who was one of Mansour’s deputies. Akhundzada had been floated as a potential successor after rumors surfaced in December suggesting that Mansour was injured in a gunfight with other Taliban members. It’s not clear if the move will do much to settle the bloody infighting that marked Mansour’s brief rule, however. “Sheikh Haibatullah is not the right choice for us,” said Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, who split from the group last year. “He has been selected quite similarly to Mansour with no consensus of all mujahedeen — it will never be acceptable to us.”
Rebel, rebel. FP’s Siobhan O’Grady has just returned from a trip to South Sudan, where she sat down with rebel leader Riek Machar at his armed camp, where he accused his rival of war crimes and blamed the U.S. for prolonging the carnage of his country’s brutal civil war. Machar, who is serving as the country’s first vice president, derided American demands that he fund the rebuilding of his country himself. One Machar’s aides had a long chat with O’Grady about — what else? — Donald Trump. We’ll let her describe the exchange:
“At one point, he suggested that a leader like Trump could solve South Sudan’s ongoing debate over an attempt by Machar’s rival, President Salva Kiir, to change the country from 10 states to 28. The opposition claims it is a clear violation of the shaky August peace deal designed to end a conflict that has killed more than 50,000 people since December 2013. ‘We need Donald Trump to solve that problem,’ the staffer said with a laugh.
Islamic State, or pretenders? There have been some indications that the Islamic State is trying to branch out into south Asia, but the head of U.S. Special Operations in the region isn’t prepared to publicly make the call just yet.
“We’re not ready to characterize it as ISIL moving into the region,” Rear Adm. Colin Kilrain said Tuesday during a panel at SOFIC, using an alternate name for the group. “There have been some attacks that are [Islamic State] inspired in Bangladesh,” Kilrain added, but he said those attacks might have come from existing groups hoping to attach themselves to the terror group’s reputation.
But worries persist. Kilrain estimated about 3,000 young men and women from the region have traveled to Iraq and Syria over the past several years to link up with the Islamic State, and “we’re concerned that even a small percent of radicalization” could have “huge implications” for the region, especially when those fighters start coming back home. On Tuesday, however, officials in Bangladesh said that a recent spate of killings claimed by ISIS were actually carried out by two other islamist groups, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.
Frozen out. Is the U.S. falling behind in Arctic great game? FP’s Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce have a great new piece detailing how the United States is “scrambling to catch up with a big, global push to build icebreakers as the melting Arctic opens the once-frozen north to oil drilling, new shipping and cruise routes, and intensified military competition.” While everyone from Russia to China and Chile are pushing ahead to build the next generation of icebreaking ships, the U.S. is struggling to upgrade its tiny and rusting icebreaker fleet, potentially leaving it at a disadvantage in the race for influence in the Arctic.
Quotable. Maj. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe, on why he would like more drones, but probably doesn’t need them: “I’m not going to be flying drones over Moscow.”
Thanks for clicking on through as we work 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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
China is putting the finishing touches on its controversial space monitoring station based in Argentina, the Diplomat reports. The two countries announced the construction of the facility in April and satellite imagery obtained by the Diplomat shows construction has moved quickly at the location in Patagonia. China says the facility will be used to support its civilian space program, but some worry it could be used to monitor satellites for military and intelligence purposes.
On Wednesday, Sweden’s parliament will decide whether to sign up for a Host Nation Agreement with NATO. The agreement wouldn’t make Sweden a member of the Atlantic alliance, but it would inch the Scandinavian country a bit closer. Colin Cleary and Olof Kronvall over at Euractiv write that the agreement will likely sail through parliament with the backing of Sweden’s governing Social Democratic and Green parties. Like a number of European countries, Sweden has grown wary of Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine and subsequent threats over its closer relationship with NATO.
The Guardian reports on new satellite imagery showing extensive damage to Russia’s Tiyas airbase in Syria caused by a series of explosions. The images, obtained by private intelligence firm Stratfor, suggests that an Islamic State rocket attack on the base destroyed four helicopters and 20 trucks. Russia’s defense ministry says it hasn’t lost any equipment in an attack by the group and claims that the burned-out vehicles had been there for a while.
Ah summer, when the chirp of crickets and the buzz of swarming drones fills the air. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is gearing up to test out some new swarming drones, otherwise known as the Low Cost Unmanned Swarming Technology. You know, LOCUST. Seapower magazine reports that the small aircraft are tube-launched like small rockets, and spread their wings once ejected from the launcher. The LOCUSTs can fly in a swarm of up to 30 and move in formation autonomously. ONR chief Rear Adm. Mathias Winter says the flying robot swarms can be used to “saturate a potential adversary.”
The Air Force is going to have to start sending more aircraft to the boneyard if the service’s budget remains constant. Military Times reports that the Pentagon’s latest Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan says that the current era of tight budgets, if projected into the future, will see the service scrapping more planes than it buys by 2021, leading to a decrease in inventory. Right now, the Air Force is required by Congress to keep at least 1,900 aircraft past 2021 but the funding will not keep pace with the mandate by that time.
The business of defense
A new report on the global arms business says that the defense industries in Israel, South Korea and Brazil are likely to give the traditional big exporters a run for their money, according to Defense News. The study by Avascent says that these countries have increasingly been building up their own homegrown defense industrial bases and may be able to satisfy larger parts of their equipment and technology needs from domestic sources. Big defense firms have contributed to these smaller players’ capabilities by agreeing to arms contracts that require offsets and the participation of local firms in production.
Coalitions are key to the U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Defense Department is great at working with them, according to a new op-ed at Angry Staff Officer. The piece takes a look at the Pentagon’s work with international coalition partners and finds that skepticism of international organizations and excessive confidence in American military strength too often leads the U.S. to overlook and alienate allies.
Photo Credit: Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah via Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary