The Cable

SitRep: More U.S. Carriers Arrive in Pacific as North Korea Diplomacy Falls Apart

More on Niger ambush comes to light, Tillerson enlists India in Afghan strategy

The USS Nimitz operates in the Arabian Gulf on Oct. 20. (U.S. Navy)
The USS Nimitz operates in the Arabian Gulf on Oct. 20. (U.S. Navy)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Heavy firepower. For the second time this year, the U.S. Navy has three aircraft carrier strike groups operating in the Western Pacific, as the security belt tightens before President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea and China next month. The Navy says that the USS Nimitz arrived  on Wednesday after three months in the Arabian Gulf, supporting the fight against the Islamic State.

The crew of the nation’s oldest carrier has been busy. The Nimitz first arrived in the Pacific for a brief stint at the end of June, before sailing to the Arabian Gulf where it launched 1,322 sorties and dropped 903 bombs in Iraq and Syria, according to numbers provided by the Navy. Now that it’s back, the Nimitz joins the USS Theodore Roosevelt which arrived in the region Monday and the USS Ronald Reagan, which is based in Japan.

Diplomacy faltering. The deployment comes as diplomatic efforts between the United States and North Korea are on their “last legs,” one U.S. official told NBC News. Joseph Yun, a top American diplomat to North Korea, is reportedly frustrated by an inability to communicate the urgency of the situation to the White House. “It is not so much that North Korea is shutting down, it’s that the message from the U.S. government is, ‘surrender without a fight or surrender with a fight,’” a separate U.S. official told NBC.

Warnings. If you haven’t already, go back and read this FP story from earlier this month on the Pentagon’s concerns over potential miscalculation with North Korea that could lead to conflict, and the orders the U.S. Navy has been giving its warships operating near the Korean coast.

North Korea marches on. There’s a new report from The Diplomat that North Korea has tested a new kind of solid fuel engine, which would help it gas up and launch missiles more quickly, and with less visibility for U.S. spy satellites hovering overhead.

Where’s Rex? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in India Wednesday where he’s working on the Trump administration’s regional approach to turning the fight around in Afghanistan. Tillerson landed in India from Pakistan after visiting Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj agreed to hold talks with Kabul and Washington on how her country can work the issue.

Niger ambush comes into focus. The four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month had little to no combat experience, the WSJ reports. One soldier had never deployed before, while the other three had one deployment apiece. None held the combat infantrymen’s or combat action badge, which is earned after combat experience.

Pursuing ISIS. NBC News says that the Green Beret team had been out on a reconnaissance patrol, but had its orders changed hours into the mission to support another American commando unit hunting an ISIS leader thought to be in the area. Elsewhere, ABC News says U.S. intel officials are studying a video reportedly of the group that attacked the combined U.S./Nigerien patrol.

No changes in Niger. The Pentagon expects to make no changes in its posture or operations in Niger, where 800 troops are active.

General rank. Since 2013, military investigators have documented at least 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals, admirals and senior civilians, USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook reports. Many cases involve sex scandals, and “senior officers found to have been involved in adulterous relationships, a violation of the military’s code of justice, have been reassigned with no public notice and allowed to retire quietly, in some cases with full honors.”

Passing the Gavel. Senate and House conferees will meet today for the first time this year to resolve differences between their respective defense authorization bills. The “pass the gavel” meeting, as it’s called, will be headed this time by Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Stephen Bannon, Secretary of State. He’s no longer on the White House payroll, but Stephen Bannon sounded like a de facto secretary of state this week. At a Hudson Institute conference on Monday, Bannon undermined the real secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, over the U.S. stance on a rift between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors. He also echoed talking points from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia about how they view their bitter dispute with Qatar.

And he suggested that plans by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to sever all ties with Qatar earlier this year was communicated to the administration in advance – and possibly given a green light.  McClatchy reported on Monday that the UAE is paying the parent company of Bannon-linked firm Cambridge Analytica $330,000 for a public relations campaign against Qatar on social media. Bannon said he has no ties to the company.

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

Ghosting. President Trump is ghosting on the annual East Asia Summit being held this year in the Philippines because, in the words of Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, his advisors are worried spending so much time in one country could leave him “cranky” and “unpredictable.”

Hollow army. North Korea’s nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles may be in top shape, but a collection of photographs smuggled by a tourist to the North show the crude conditions in which the Korean People’s Army conventional forces still operate.

Nyet. Russia has vetoed a resolution that would extend the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for another year in order to determine who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun. 11 countries in the Security Council backed the extension, with only Bolivia and Russia voting against it.

Brexit meddling. The U.K. parliament is launching an inquiry into whether Russia interfered in the British referendum on whether to leave the European Union using the same propaganda tactics and platforms used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Legislators have sent requests to companies like Twitter and Facebook, recently revealed as the hosts of advertisements and astroturf campaigns from Russian troll farms, asking for any evidence of Russian meddling.

A rush and a push and the land is ours. Iraq is gearing up for its final offensive against the Islamic State to take back the terrorist group’s last remaining strongholds in al-Qaim and Rawa near the Syrian border.

Drones. The Islamic State releases a video purporting to show one of its grenade-armed quadcopter drones blowing up an Assad regime ammunition depot in Mayadeen, Syria, on October 15.

Kaspersky. Kaspersky Lab founder Eugene Kaspersky is telling his side of the story about how his firm ended up in possession of a trove of classified National Security Agency (NSA) files after the company’s anti-virus software scanned the computer of an NSA contractor. Kaspersky tells the AP that analysts from the company brought him the uploaded malware samples in a panic, leading Kaspersky to conclude the data “must be deleted.”

Guess who Paid the Piper? The biggest open secret in DC was confirmed Tuesday by the Washington Post, which reported that the Hillary Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped pay for the infamous “Steele dossier,” whose allegations included a Donald Trump “pee tape.” The dossier has sparked numerous lawsuits and is now at the center of the ongoing Russia investigation.

Boeing’s Iran Deal on the Rocks. Just weeks after declaring Tehran wasn’t in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, the Trump administration may be looking to kill Boeing’s planned sale of commercial aircraft to Iran. Blocking the sale could create tension between president Trump’s support for job creation and his desire to take a tougher stand on Iran. The ostensible reason for halting the sale is the regime’s use of Iran Air, the country’s commercial airliner, to transport militants in the region, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

Doha’s D.C. Move. Qatar’s Ministry of Defense opened a D.C. headquarters for its military attaché office as part of an effort to better integrate with U.S. forces against terrorism, MENAFN reports. The mideast nation also plans a Los Angeles military attaché office location in the near future.

Saudis Pull Strings in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman bin Sultan ordered Syrian rebel attacks on Damascus in March 2013, according to a National Security Agency document provided to The Intercept by Edward Snowden. The order included instructions to “‘flatten’ the airport” and came with the added bonus of 120 tons of explosives and weapons. Saudi has long wanted Assad out, and is known to have supported rebel groups in Syria, but this is the most solid evidence of its activities to date.

Afghans in Alabama. The first four Afghan Black Hawk helicopter pilots wrapped up their helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Alabama last week, U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicholas Plante tells FP. About 21 Afghan pilots are slated to train at Fort Rucker in 2019, followed by 25 more in subsequent years. Back home, 36 Black Hawk pilots will train at Kandahar Airfield [in Afghanistan] in 2018, with a similar number every year thereafter, Plante said. The U.S. is replacing the Afghan military’s fleet of Russian-mae choppers with American birds.

2018 Drone Dollars. The Pentagon is slated to spend almost $7 billion on drones and related technologies in its 2018 fiscal year budget, according to a report from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. The figure is a full 90 percent higher than the Pentagon’s 2013 prediction of what it would be spending on such technology in 2018.

But what about those drones? The U.S. Air Force continues to shed some of its MQ-9 Reaper drones, which it says will fully replace the MQ-1 Predator next year. Just two Reapers were lost this year compared to five losses in 2016, and eight the year before that. Most were taken down by electrical problems, but since Reapers feature a an hour-long battery backup system, if the drone is more than an hour from an airfield, the pilot will likely deliberately crash it.

Name That Launch. Never mistake an old Iranian missile launch for a new one ever again. The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s CNS Iran Missile and SLV Launch Database records flights of all missiles launched by Iran capable of delivering a payload of at least 1,102 lbs. a distance of at least 186 miles. With records stretching all the way back to 1988, you won’t miss a thing.

China and South Korea, make some peace. The deployment of the U.S. anti-missile THAAD system to South Korea has driven a wedge between Seoul and Beijing, but on Tuesday, defense ministers from China and South Korea met for the first time in two years on the sidelines of an Asean forum in the Philippines.

Pentagon on the Pacific. The mystery Silicon Valley defense company led by Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey is hiring. The firm hasn’t revealed much about what it plans on marketing to the Pentagon, but it’s looking for engineers with experience in computer vision and robotics, among other areas.

FP’s Dan De Luce, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Sharon Weinberger and John Kester contributed to this report.

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

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