The Cable

SitRep: Air Force Considering B-52 Nuke Alert, But Does It Have The Pilots?

Chaos in Afghanistan, and CIA ramps up war in Afghanistan.

A B-52 Stratofortress and F-16 jets in flight in October, 2015. (Jordan Pix/ Getty Images)
A B-52 Stratofortress and F-16 jets in flight in October, 2015. (Jordan Pix/ Getty Images)

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

B-52s back on Cold War-like nuke alert? The U.S. Air Force is considering placing its nuclear-capable B-52 bombers back on 24-hour ready alert for the first time since the status was rescinded in 1991.

“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, told Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. “I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.”

But can the USAF fly the planes? In the meantime, the Air Force is struggling with a shortage of over 1,500 pilots. On Friday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order allowing Air Force officials to involuntarily recall up to 1,000 pilots on an emergency basis in order to fill the gap.

Long — and constant — deployments, and more lucrative contracts from the civilian airline industry has helped to sap the ranks of qualified fighter and bomber pilots from the service in recent years. The Air Force said on Sunday that they don’t expect to take the president up on his offer just yet, however.

CIA’s own Afghanistan surge. The Central Intelligence Agency is “sending small teams of highly experienced officers and contractors alongside Afghan forces to hunt and kill Taliban militants,” the NYT’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman write.

The new deployments are something relatively new for the agency, which has in the past bristled at waging such an open-ended campaign against the Taliban. But:

“The expansion reflects the C.I.A.’s assertive role under its new director, Mike Pompeo, to combat insurgents around the world. The agency is already poised to broaden its program of covert drone strikes into Afghanistan; it had largely been centered on the tribal regions of Pakistan, with occasional strikes in Syria and Yemen.”

Mayhem in Kabul. Meanwhile, a suicide attacker rammed a car full of explosives into a military convoy in Kabul on Saturday, killing 15 Afghan army cadets. The attack came after another suicide bombing on Thursday killed more than 40 Afghan soldiers at a base in Kandahar. On Tuesday, dozens of security personnel were killed in Taliban attacks on government compounds in Paktia and Ghazni provinces.

And civilian deaths caused by improvised explosive devices are skyrocketing in Afghanistan, according to internal Pentagon documents obtained by FP.

White House appears to be rushing out condolence letters. In the wake of president Trump’s assertion that he has reached out to virtually all of the families of servicememebrs who have been killed under his watch, the White House appears to be rushing out condolence letters to retroactively make his claim true. The Atlantic tracked down several families of servciemembers who have fallen over the past several months, many of whom received rushed packages from the White House on Friday.

Iran, Iran, Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq to call it a day and demobilize as Iraq’s war against the Islamic State winds down, saying “those militias need to go home” and allow the Iraqi government to begin reconstruction. Tillerson is in the Middle East over the weekend, where he stepped up pressure on Arab countries to further isolate Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is cutting back the budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked Khatam al-Anbiya corporation that has served as a piggybank for senior members of the IRGC. The cutbacks appear aimed at reducing the reach of the Guards — often international sanctions magnets — into the civilian economy in order to improve Iran’s investment climate after the lifting of some international sanctions.

Tour of duty. Here’s a crazy story about two Americans who went to fight ISIS with Syrian Kurds how one escaped into Iraq only to be jailed in Erbil, while the other is still in Syria, trying to figure out a way to do the same.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Creepy. The Chinese government is building a national database of its citizens voices so it can instantly identify anyone overhead in a phone conversation, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. The project, aided by Chinese speech recognition technology firm  iFlytek, is still in pilot mode, with tens of thousands of voice samples already collected.

The fugitive. China’s pursuit of a fugitive businessman in the U.S. who says he has information on corrupt government officials there is laying bare the tensions in the Trump administration over how to approach Beijing. The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese intel officials visited Guo Wengui in New York, violating the terms of their visas and setting off a debate between the State Department and China hawks from the FBI and elsewhere who wanted to arrest the officials.  

Hardball. Russia has listed the man responsible for pushing sanctions legislation against corrupt Russian officials on Interpol’s wanted list. Bill Browder lobbied for American sanctions against Russia after his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in prison following accusations of official corruption and has helped pass similar legislation in Canada.

Gun runners. Afghan government officials and an unnamed arms dealer tell The Guardian that Russia has been supplying the Taliban with weapons. Russian engagement with the Taliban reportedly began as early as 2005 in an effort to curtail the rise of Central Asian Islamist militants but has since blossomed into arms supplies, according to one dealer, yielding shipments of at least 300 Kalashnikov rifles to militants in Badakhshan Province.

Tremble again at the sound of our silence. The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier spearheaded the hunt for a Russian submarine last summer after it launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria from the Mediterranean. The stealthy Kilo-class Krasnodar eventually managed to slip away from its American pursuers, providing an unwelcome reminder of Russia’s continued investment in its submarine technology despite its tight defense budgets.

Foreign fighters. An official from Britain’s foreign ministry says that British foreign fighters for the Islamic State are such a threat to the country that “unfortunately the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.” Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Rory Stewart told the BBC that foreign fighters had engaged in heinous human rights abuses and that they present a “serious danger to us.”

Raqqa. “Raqqa has inherited the fate of Dresden in 1945, wiped off the face of the earth by Anglo-American bombardments” — Russian Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, criticizing the humanitarian toll of the U.S. air war over the former Islamic State capital of Raqqa.

Smooth move. The Department of Homeland Security prevented Indonesia’s top military officer General Gatot Nurmantyo from visiting the U.S. despite an invitation from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to visit a counterterrorism conference. The U.S. embassy in Indonesia has apologized for the incident but an Indonesian military spokesperson says Gen. Nurmantyo has decided to stay home “until there is formal explanation from the United States.”

Walkback. The World Health Organization (WHO) has rescinded a symbolic honor to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe after an international uproar from human rights and democracy activists. The WHO revoked Mugabe’s status as an international goodwill ambassador for the organization after critics charged that honoring a head of state with a dismal human rights record sent the wrong message.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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