The Cable

SitRep: U.S. Military Leaders Heading to Seoul, Considering New Missiles, Nukes

U.S. considering armed drone ops in Niger, Iran tells Iraq not to trust Washington.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford make a statement on North Korea September 3. (Chris Kleponis - Pool/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford make a statement on North Korea September 3. (Chris Kleponis - Pool/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

More missiles, nukes on the table in South Korea. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford landed in Seoul, South Korea on Thursday, where he’ll discuss efforts to bolster the country’s military capabilities. Included on the list are better ballistic missile defenses and reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is slated to arrive in the country later this week to continue the discussions.

Listen to Pyongyang. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Pil says he wasn’t kidding last month when he said his country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is interested in conducting an atmospheric thermonuclear test, telling CNN that he is “very well aware of the intentions of our supreme leader, so I think you should take his words literally.”

New Pentagon missile plans. All of this talk of ballistic missiles and nuclear tests comes as the Pentagon is wrapping up a months-long study of its ballistic missile defense capabilities, the first soup-to-nuts review since 2010.

The report promises to be the Trump administration’s first stab at reshaping a critical area of defense spending for years to come. FP’s Paul McLeary writes that “the review will not only focus on existing programs, but also take stock of new threats posed by Iran, North Korea, and the changing nuclear and ballistic missile posture of both Russia and China.” President Trump has promised to spend billions more on ballistic missile defense, and the Pentagon recently asked Congress for $440 million in emergency funding the bulk up missile defense programs.

Pentagon looking to expand drone war. The United States is considering using armed drones in Niger as part of existing plans to step up the American involvement in battling Islamic State and al Qaeda elements in the country. The plans were under way before the Oct. 4 ambush on American and Nigerien troops that left four Americans dead, NBC News reports.  

That mission started out as a routine reconnaissance patrol, but changed after the Special Forces team was instructed to assist what intel officials tell NBC was “a joint U.S.-French intelligence collection unit, working with Nigerien forces, that had been gathering information on terrorist organizations in Niger.” That team had been using an unarmed Reaper drone, which was rushed to the site of the ambush within minutes of the first team’s call for help.

Commander in chiefing. The president washed his hands of any association with the incident on Wednesday when asked if he authorized the mission. “No, I didn’t, not specifically,” he told reporters on the south lawn of the White House.

“I have generals that are great generals,” he said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about, I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.”

Rewind. The comments recall those Trump made in the opening days of his presidency after U.S. Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was killed in Yemen while on a mission Trump did sign off on.

The mission “was started before I got here,” the president explained. “This was something that was, you know, just — [the military] wanted to do,” Trump said. “ And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals…and they lost Ryan.”

France getting after it. The French military, who responded to the ambushes on Oct. 4 with jets and ground forces, says it killed 15 Islamic militants in Mali near the Niger border on Wednesday using a combination of Mirage jets, attack helicopters and troops on the ground. France has around 4,000 troops in the region as part of Operation Barkhane, where they work alongside 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Mali.

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

Et tu, Vlad? President Trump issued a rare critique of Russia on Wednesday for being unhelpful in dealing with North Korea, saying “China is helping us and maybe Russia’s going through the other way and hurting what we’re getting” from Pyongyang. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly taken issue with U.S. efforts to isolate the North over its recent missile tests and Russian officials have publicly doubted U.S. estimates of North Korean missile capabilities.

Trump, however, was more effusive in his praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping, telling Fox that “some might call him king of China” and “people say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also.”

Turkey. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) drafted a bipartisan letter to President Trump signed by a dozen senate colleagues urging the president to take a tougher line on Turkey for its “continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values.” The senators singled out the arrest of Turkish staff at a U.S. consulate in Turkey, as well as Turkey’s prosecution in absentia of Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak as examples of Ankara’s apparent authoritarian slide.

Kurdistan. Employees at some of Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest oilfields ditched their uniforms and split when they heard that Shia militias, emboldened by threats against the Kurdish independence referendum from Iran’s Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani, were on their way to take control of the lucrative facilities. The abandonment of the fields has cost Kurdistan nearly $200 million and left Iraqi forces struggling to reopen them without the passwords to access critical systems.

Smack talk. Despite the offer of mediation, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Iraq shouldn’t rely on American help to defuse the crisis over Kurdish independence, telling the visiting Iraq leader “Don’t trust America…it will harm you in the future.”

Referees. The “United States—and I think coalition forces as well—are more than willing to help with disengagement and trying to figure out what the next step will be” in Iraq, an anonymous U.S. military source tells the Wall Street Journal, adding that coalition troops could be used as a buffer between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Sanctions. The U.S. and a coalition of Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia have unveiled a joint package of sanctions against the Yemeni affiliates of the Islamic State and al Qaeda in what Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called “the largest ever multilateral designation in the Middle East.”

Navy. Don’t hold your breath waiting on the U.S. Navy to reach its 355 ship goal, because acting Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Dee says the service probably won’t get there until at least “mid century.” USNI News reports that Dee discounted other estimates that the Navy could reach its fleet size goal faster, saying that the inability for the service to receive reliable budgets because of Congress’s penchant for budget caps and continuing resolutions.

ISIS Returnees. Dick Schoof, the Netherlands’ counterterrorism chief, came to D.C. with a message: the fall of Raqqa isn’t the end of the Islamic State. Chief among his concerns is the return of foreign fighters: women who make it back to Dutch territory will be treated as criminals, (“women don’t do only the cooking” in the ISIS, he said), whereas children under the age of nine will be considered victims. Children between nine and 16 will receive counseling.

French DARPA?  French president Emmanuel Macron said last month that Europe should have its own Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And viola! Florence Parly, the French defense minister, visited DARPA’s headquarters during her recent trip to Washington, D.C., the French Embassy confirmed. The minister also visited the Pentagon’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office. Past European Union efforts to centralize military research have faltered, but proponents of a “Euro DARPA” are hoping it works out this time around.

Kaspersky on the Outs. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D – Mo.) Tuesday requested answers from the Department of Homeland Security regarding the agency’s September order that all executive branch agencies remove Kaspersky Lab products from their systems. The firm has been tied to Russian hackers’ 2015 theft of “classified documents or tools” from the NSA, the Intercept reported Monday. The DoD announced this week it was removing Kaspersky Lab software from its systems.

Bulgarian ‘Misunderstanding’ or ‘Mutiny’? Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov is trying to dispel the notion that the country’s Air Force pilots staged a mutiny. He held a news conference this week after reports that pilots refused to fly due to “safety concerns and low morale sparked by delays in the acquisition of new fighter jets.” At issue are Soviet-era MiG-29s still flown by the air force. For Karakachanov, it was simply a “‘misunderstanding.”

Sick Pilots. F-35A pilots at Luke Air Force Base are continuing to experience symptoms of hypoxia (“a lack of oxygen in the blood”) Aviation Week reports. F-35s were grounded at the base this summer in reaction to similar episodes, but the incidents have persisted since pilots took back to the skies. The Air Force hasn’t figured it out, but suggests it is likely not actually hypoxia, since, in recent cases, “initiating the backup oxygen system did not immediately ease the pilots’ symptoms.”

Subs. The USS South Dakota, the latest in the Virginia class of submarines, is ready to set sail, billed as one of the most advanced submarines in the U.S. fleet for its stealth capabilities.

May her reign be just. New Zealand now has a First Cat, Paddles, the adopted cat of newly-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, with the polydactyl feline’s Twitter account becoming a growing Internet sensation.

 

FP’s 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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