The Cable

SitRep: Empty Seats in Trump Pentagon, State; U.S. General Readies ISIS War Plans; North Korea Readies Missile Tests

NATO Back and Forth; Russia and Turkey Team Up; Chinese Drones Make a Big Leap; And Lots More

ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 29:  U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter awaits the arrival of Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar at the Pentagon August 29, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia. Parrikar is scheduled to lay a wreath at the Pentagon 9-11 Memorial and participate in a joint news conference with Secretary Carter following bilateral meetings.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 29: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter awaits the arrival of Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar at the Pentagon August 29, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia. Parrikar is scheduled to lay a wreath at the Pentagon 9-11 Memorial and participate in a joint news conference with Secretary Carter following bilateral meetings. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Empty seats. President-elect Donald Trump will enter the White House Friday with most national security positions still vacant, after a disorganized transition that has stunned and disheartened career government officials.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” one career government official told FP’s Dan De Luce and John Hudson. The FP duo report that “the positions still to be filled include senior management and policy posts that oversee diplomacy, military budgets, nuclear weapons, counterterrorism, and media relations, said Obama administration officials, congressional staffers and people familiar with the transition.” The open seats at the Pentagon in particular stem from disagreements between incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis — confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday but awaiting the full Senate vote — and the team being led by Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower, who disagree on who to install.

“Without his team in place, the new president will likely be unprepared should an early-term crisis erupt abroad, or an adversary test the new administration’s mettle, said former officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.”

From the top. One outgoing Pentagon official who shares those concerns, Frank Kendall — the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer — said Wednesday he’s worried about the team coming into the building. “What scares me,” he said at a think tank event Thursday, “is that we’ll bring in outsiders who have no idea how this place — how the Pentagon works. They will have no idea how the defense industry works.”

ISIS war plans ready. Trump spent months on the campaign trail claiming to know more about fighting terrorism than U.S. generals do, but Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a small group of reporters in Brussels — including FP’s Paul McLeary — that his staff is ready to present new war options, “including opportunities to accelerate the campaign.” But, he emphasized, he’s more interested in a discussion of overall war aims than just laying out possibilities for more troops or bombing runs.

In the wide-ranging discussion before leaving Brussels for Washington Wednesday morning, Dunford repeated the Pentagon’s assessment that Russia is “the most capable state actor that could challenge us,” and said he has briefed top Trump officials on the classified National Military Strategy, which outlines the Pentagon’s assessment of the biggest threats facing the nation.

One plan. In an exit interview with the AP, outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that one option he opposes is sending more U.S. troops into Syria. “If we were to take over the war in Iraq and Syria entirely ourselves,” he said, “we would risk turning people who are currently inclined to resist ISIL…potentially into resisting us, and that would increase the strength of the enemy.”

NATO. Yes, or no? In another set of mixed messages coming from the incoming White House team, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Wednesday that despite Trump’s threats to leave the Atlantic alliance, Washington fully supports the organization. “It’s an alliance that should expand to include other security threats. But that historic mission of NATO will go forward. I’m confident,” Pence said.

NATO and U.S. military back NATO. Traveling with Gen. Dunford this week in Paris and Brussels for a series of high-level meetings with NATO leadership, FP’s Paul McLeary reported that alliance officials acknowledge that there’s work to be done. But, they added, key meetings last year put NATO well along the path of increasing its participation in the counterterrorism fight. In fact, the first team of NATO military and civilian officials landed in Baghdad earlier this month to begin a new mission there advising Iraqi officials.

Well, this is awkward. Russian aircraft bombed targets around the ISIS-held city of al-Bab Wednesday in support of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies. The runs were in coordination with American-made Turkish aircraft, the first time the two countries coordinated on a mission in Syria. The strikes came just days after U.S. aircraft dropped ordnance in the same area, though U.S. military officials say their strikes were simply against ISIS targets, and not necessarily in support of the Turkish offensive.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.


It’s a race between European leaders and Russian Vladimir Putin to see who’ll be the first to snag a meeting with President Trump when he’s sworn in. The AP reports that British Prime Minister Theresa May is an eager contender, looking for a one-on-one with Trump. European Union (EU) Council President Donald Tusk also extended an invitation for Trump to meet with EU leaders but got a stiff-arm from the famously Euroskeptic president-elect’s transition officials. Despite the hurry on the part of European officials, a Trump senior advisor tells the wire service that the president-elect has no current plans for a meeting with Putin.


Award season is upon as and China’s armed, stealth Sharp Sword UAV has already clinched second prize in the National Science and Technology Advancement Prize, according to PopSci. China’s military keeps a lot about the batwing-shaped drone under wraps but it’s made by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and intended to act as a reconnaissance and strike aircraft that could one day be China’s first boot through the door of highly defended airspace in the event of a war. The U.S. Navy has embarked on a stealth drone project of its own with the MQ-25 Stingray, a stealthy, unmanned tanker intended to take off and land from aircraft carriers.

North Korea

Kim Jong Un has two intercontinental ballistic missiles teed up and ready to fire, according to Yonhap News Agency. Anonymous South Korean military officials tell the paper that North Korea has the missiles loaded onto mobile launchers and ready to light off for testing. U.S. officials have been expecting a test sometime in the near future, with the Sea-based X-band Radar system en route to the coast of North Korea in order to glean intelligence about the North’s missile capabilities.


The Islamic State’s war on Iraq has extended to livestock, with sheep as the latest victims of the group’s environmental destruction. Reuters reports that oil well fires in Iraq set by Islamic State fighters have been taking a toll not just on human health, but on Iraqi agriculture. In areas like Qayyara, shepherds have complained that the still-burning fires have killed off large parts of their flocks as part of what observers say is an ongoing campaign of “ecocide” carried out by the group.

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units Twitter account published pictures on Wednesday of what it said was an Islamic State kamikaze plane found in Mosul. The small manned aircraft, discovered by Iraqi forces in a workshop, was stripped down in an apparent effort to stuff the plane with explosives and crash into a target. Islamic State fighters have also been experimenting with smaller, unmanned drones equipped with grenades and explosives to carry out attacks against Iraqi and coalition troops.


The Obama administration is making a last-ditch effort to urge the United Nations to enforce an arms embargo on Iran as it steps out the door. RFE/RL reports that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power raised the issue of Iranian weapons exports to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and called on the United Nations to take action on a U.N. embargo on Iranian arms exports. Iran is widely believed to be supplying the group with weapons and outgoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently raised the issue, citing a speech by Hassan Nasrallah in which the Hezbollah leader praised Iranian arms exports.



Photo Credit: Somodevilla/Getty Images


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