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SitRep: ISIS Joins the Drone Wars; Russian Bombers Heading to the Pacific

U.S. Weighing New Strikes on Houthis; Iraq and Turkey Spar; Congress Pushing to Saudi Arms Ban; And Lots More



New front? The Pentagon is tracking subjects believed to be responsible for popping off two missiles at the USS Mason and USS Ponce off the coast of Yemen on Sunday, and is considering taking strikes once they’re identified.

The missiles were launched from Houthi-held territory, Pentagon officials have confirmed, and the Mason did deploy two Standard Missile-2s and a single Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile to intercept the incoming missiles, according to the US Naval Institute. It was the first time either self-defense system has been used to protect an American warship from incoming missiles — making this a pretty big deal — although Navy officials aren’t sure if the suspected Iranian-backed Houthi missiles were knocked down, or fell into the ocean on their own.

Defense officials tell Reuters they believe the rebels used “small skiffs as spotters to help direct” the attack, and “a radar station under Houthi control in Yemen might have also ‘painted’ the USS Mason, something that would have helped the Iran-aligned fighters pass along coordinates for a strike.”

More Saudi problems. FP’s John Hudson joins us this morning, writing that in a new letter obtained by FP, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) urges Secretary of State John Kerry to halt U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. Lieu, a graduate of Air War College and former teacher of the law of armed conflict, expresses concern that the U.S. could be legally liable for war crimes committed by the coalition in Yemen due to the high civilian death toll. “Apologists for the Saudi coalition can perhaps defend a few errant bombs, but not over 70 unlawful airstrikes,” he writes. Read the whole letter, dated Oct. 11, here.

Deadly ISIS drone. A small, explosives-laden drone flown by the Islamic State killed two peshmerga fighters in Iraq last week after the fighters shot down the drone and began examining it. That’s when explosives made to look like batteries exploded, killing them. Militant groups have been experimenting with remotely-operated weapons across Syria and Iraq, including a Hezbollah operated drone which dropped a Chinese submunition and a Jund al-Aqsa drone which dropped a small bomb on troops allied with the Syrian government. The Pentagon has sped-up research and development of counter-drone systems, including the deployment to Iraq of a drone-jamming gun made by Battelle. But for now, U.S. commanders have instructed American troops in Iraq to treat any small, downed drone as an explosive device.

Action, reaction. Russian President Vladimir Putin has canceled a planned visit to Paris next week in the wake of French President Francois Hollande’s insistence that he would only meet the Russian leader for talks on Syria. Last week, Moscow vetoed a French-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.

Russia looks to Asia. Moscow is standing up a new long-range heavy bomber division in the country’s far east in order to patrol the Pacific, in particular areas near Hawaii, Guam, and Japan, according to Jane’s. The new unit will consist of dozens of Tu-95MS “Bear” strategic missile bombers, Tu-22M3 “Backfire” long-range bombers, and other aircraft.

Jointness. Moscow and Beijing are also considering collaborating on a joint response to new U.S. missile defense platforms — including the upcoming deployment of the U.S. Army’s THAAD system to South Korea. Speaking at a security conference in China, Russian Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir said the Pentagon is developing missile defenses as part a plan to conduct a first nuclear strike, adding, “if one of the gladiators takes up a shield, it will give him a marked advantage and make him think that he would be able to win, particularly if he strikes first. What would another gladiator do? Naturally, he also would pick up a shield and also a longer and stronger sword. This is what happening now as a result of the U.S. missile deployment.”

Fake it till you make it. Moscow is deploying dozens of inflatable decoy tanks and airplanes around the country to confuse NATO and American satellites, the New York Times tells us.

Collision course over Mosul? Ankara and Baghdad are engaging in an increasingly testy war of words over the Turkish role in northern Iraq, and in particular, the upcoming fight for Mosul, FP’s Paul McLeary reports. In short, Turkey wants in on the fight, and refuses to pull its 2,000 troops out of a base near the city despite Iraqi threats that Ankara’s refusal could lead to war. The Turkish position comes as the Turkish military and government strain to show the world that the failed military coup in July didn’t cripple its ability to project power in the region.

State Department spokesman John Kirby released a statement late Tuesday swiping at the issue, saying, “all international forces in Iraq should be there with the approval of and in coordination with the Government of Iraq, under the umbrella of the Coalition. It is imperative for all parties to coordinate closely over the coming days and weeks.”

ISIS in Mosul. The Pentagon gave reporters a brief glimpse at some of the preparations ISIS is making to defend Mosul on Tuesday. Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said U.S. drones and spy planes have seen “everything from berms and trenches being prepared, [bombs] being placed in buildings and cars and along roads along the way, charges being placed on bridges, giant pits full of tires and oil being readied to be lit quickly and create these giant obscuration fires, very smoky dark clouds that make it hard to do air operations.” The Iraqi offensive is expected to begin some time this month.
Good morning and 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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Gone fishing

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to go diving for North Korean missile scrap in Japanese waters. North Korea has been on something of a ballistic missile testing tear this year, often firing them in the direction of Japan, with the first confirmed North Korean missile nose cone splashing down in Japanese territorial waters back in August. As Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told the National Diet, the missile debris could yield valuable insights about the North’s capabilities. Still, with the debris potentially sunk to a 3,000 meter depth, recovery could prove difficult.

Today in hacking

Washington has accused Russia of hacking political parties and election databases, so now what? The Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal walks through the options available and challenges confronting the Obama administration as it decides what to do about its newly-public conclusion. Responding in kind by hacking Russian organizations and individuals seems like an obvious response, but risks undermining the cyber norms the United States is trying to promote and locking the two countries in an escalatory spiral. Another option would be to respond asymmetrically, either through sanctions, aid to Baltic countries, or support for Russian dissidents. But whatever Washington does just might set a precedent for future reactions of hacks.

The BBC reports that Russia may have been behind the April 2015 attack on France’s TV5Monde television channel that knocked it off air. Yves Bigot, director of the channel, tells the BBC that French investigators said the attack was not, as initially claimed, carried out by an Islamic State-linked hacking collective calling itself the “Cyber Caliphate.” Rather, Bigot says the French government told him the attack, reconnaissance for which began as early as January 2015, was carried out by the APT 28 group linked to Russian intelligence. The motive for the attack, however, remains unclear.


Russia and Egypt are growing closer together and celebrating their bilateral bromance with a new round of military exercises this month. “Protectors of Friendship 2016” will kick off in the middle of October and involve airborne exercises in which Russia jumps both troops and equipment into the desert, according to Agence France Presse. The airborne drills follow a previous set of Russian-Egyptian naval exercises in the Mediterranean held in 2015.


A year ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki left office in disgrace as the Islamic State swept across the country, gobbling up swaths of territory. Now, Reuters reports, Maliki may be on the verge of a comeback, using his position in the Iraqi parliament to undermine the cabinet of current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Opponents of Maliki, including the Obama administration, accuse him of weakening Iraqi security forces through corruption and creating the political climate that gave rise to the Islamic State by marginalizing the country’s Sunni population.


Photo Credit: U.S. Army

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.