SitRep: The Generals Take Washington; Russia Hints at War with Ukraine
U.S. Admits Syria Strike Mistake; Pentagon Still Without a Budget; And Lots More
Here come the generals. After more than a year of criticizing and ridiculing U.S. military officers for their failures, President-elect Donald Trump has spent much of his time not taken up by Twitter since the election huddling with some of the most famous generals and admirals of the post-9/11 era.
Retired general Mike Flynn has already been tapped as Trump’s national security advisor, and now, David Petraeus appears to be competing with Mitt Romney for the job of Secretary of State. “Petraeus is definitely in the mix, and I believe you’ll have a decision by the weekend,” a person with knowledge of the vetting told FP’s John Hudson.
The diplomatic corps is split on Petraeus, and some have bristled that he doesn’t fully understand what they do. “Petraeus didn’t always give diplomats in war zones as much respect as military personnel — even when the troops were of lower rank,” one current U.S. Foreign Service officer told Hudson, while others who worked with him in Iraq sang his praises.
Another former four-star in the mix, retired Marine Corps general James Mattis, appears to be the frontrunner for the Defense Secretary job. While Mattis “could be a mature voice in the room,” a congressional staffer told FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary, he also shares some hawkish views on Iran with many in the incoming administration.
“But unlike other hawks advising Trump, Mattis is more realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East, former colleagues said. He recognizes that a unilateral bid to dump the Iran nuclear deal — which was negotiated between major powers and Tehran — might harm American interests. Instead, the colleagues said, Mattis probably would argue for enforcing every provision of the nuclear deal, insisting that Iran abide by the agreement “to the letter.”
Mistake in Syria. American military officials admitted Tuesday they mistakenly killed at least 15 Syrian soldiers in a September airstrike near Deir Ezzour, but said the bombing run was the result of a series of mistakes and miscommunications.
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard “Tex” Coe, the officer who oversaw an investigation into the incident, told reporters at the Pentagon that intel assets followed a car thought to belong to the Islamic State to a position with dozens of troops, and then U.S., Danish, British and Australian aircraft rocked the site with 34 precision-guided munitions and 380 rounds of 30mm cannon fire over the course of an hour. Coe added that the death toll was likely higher than 15, but analysis of video could only confirm that number. Other analysts in Syria have put the toll closer to 80.
Budget battle. Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate on Tuesday finalized a $618.7 billion defense policy bill that reduces the numbers of jets and ships included in previous versions of the bill, but adds more troops to the budget submitted earlier this year by President Barack Obama. Army end-strength jumps to 476,000 from the current 460,000 in 2017, and the Marine Corps inches upward to 185,000 from 182,000 under the plan.
Don’t get too excited, though. The bill isn’t a defense budget. The Pentagon doesn’t actually have one of those just yet, after lawmakers failed to reach consensus back in September on a spending package. The military has been working off a stopgap spending measure since then, and might until at least May, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has indicated that he wants to give the Trump administration time to work though its agenda for its first 100 days before worrying about defense spending.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter blasted the idea in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, calling the plan “unprecedented and unacceptable,” as it makes it difficult for the Pentagon to engage in long-term planning without a stable budget.
Moscow’s moves. Remember the Admiral Kuznetsov, the aging and troubled Russian aircraft carrier deployed off the coast of Syria to strike rebels battling the Assad regime? It appears it has lost its planes. Weeks after one of its jets crashed into the sea, Jane’s digs up satellite images that show its warplanes have been flown to the main Russian air base in Syria, where they’re not in danger of ending up in the drink.
Russia is also making some noise about an upcoming Ukrainian missile test that would fly over Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia in 2014. Chairman of the foreign policy committee in the Russian parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, warned this week that the move could provoke war: “Eight years ago, the leader of another country who was in conflict with Russia — I mean Georgia — tried to test the endurance of our Armed Forces,” Kosachov said. “We know perfectly well what it ended in. I hope the Ukrainian government remembers this well enough, too.”
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The Islamic State’s propaganda mouthpiece Amaq news agency has claimed an Ohio State University student’s attempt to run over classmates and attack them with a butcher knife. A police officer shot and killed Abdul Razak Ali Artan in the midst of the attack, which injured other students. The Islamic State often latches onto incidents where attackers have no association or communication with the group or its members, claiming perpetrators as “soldiers.” Authorities have yet to reveal a motive in the attack but a Facebook post attributed to Artan and written before the attack stated that abuses towards Muslims in Myanmar had pushed Artan to a “boiling point.”
During the campaign, president-elect Donald Trump famously pledged to toss out the Iranian nuclear deal the Obama administration reached with Tehran in 2015 and negotiate a new one. Now CIA Director John Brennan is adding his voice to the chorus of those urging Trump to keep the agreement in place. In an interview with the BBC, Brennan says ditching the deal would be “the height of folly” as well as “disastrous” and “unprecedented.”
Germany has an election coming up next year and the country’s top spy is worried that Russian intelligence will try to interfere in the election the way it allegedly did in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. The Guardian reports on recent comments by Bruno Kahl, head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, saying that hackers from Russia are focused on “delegitimising the democratic process” through their attacks. Kahl said the hackers aren’t trying very hard to cover their tracks but instead deliberately leaving them behind to show off their capabilities.
Meanwhile, in Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Daily Telegraph reports that German authorities have arrested an employee of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) for participating in a plot to attack the spy agency. The intelligence officer reportedly converted to Islam, made a pledge of allegiance to Mohamed Mahmoud, an Austrian senior member of the Islamic State, and made contact with Islamist extremists in a bid to get them to smuggle a bomb into the BfV office.
A new report from the European Union-funded consultancy Conflict Armament Research (CAR) shines a light on the arms trade between Iran and Yemen. The group took a look at weapons seized by Austrian and French warships from boats traveling back and forth between Somalia and Yemen. The researchers found 100 rocket launchers, 2,000 assault rifles, and 64 sniper rifles with Iranian markings on them. In addition to the Iranian-made weapons, CAR also found Russian anti-tank missiles and North Korean machine guns.
The Islamic State has littered Syria and Iraq with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), causing headaches and hazards for those trying to dispose of them safely. Defense Tech reports that the Air Force’s 96th Civil Engineer Group is trying a new tool to deal with the homemade bombs: lasers. The unit says it’s managed to get lasers that can burn through an IED and now it wants to strap them to the top of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The goal is to get to the point where the laser can autonomously target IEDs rather than having troops individually target them.
Army and Marine forces are headed to Texas and New Mexico in order to game out what a war in the Pacific would look like with American troops facing cyber attacks, enemy robots, and electronic warfare. The result, Bloomberg reports, is that the Army believes it has some catching up to do. The Army’s new Rapid Capabilities Office was involved in the exercise and its director Major General Walter Piatt could inform decisions about what the office will buy and develop next.
Photo Credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary
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