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SitRep: Nuke Spending to Spike; F-35s, New Drones Head to Pacific

Air Force paying to build contractor fighter force; South Korea says no nukes.

Replacing aging nuclear-capable infrastructure will run over a trillion dollars in the coming years. B-52s drill on Sept. 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force)
Replacing aging nuclear-capable infrastructure will run over a trillion dollars in the coming years. B-52s drill on Sept. 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

That’s Trillion with a “T”. The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. That huge number takes into account the replacement of nuclear-capable submarines, ICBMs, and new aircraft for the Air Force.

The budget office warned that the projected costs would muscle out some conventional weapons programs in the coming years unless the Pentagon’s budget is increased substantially. The CBO identified some cost savings however, saying the Pentagon could save as much as $139 billion if it delayed production of a new ICBM, stalled a secretive new nuclear-capable bomber called the B-21, and reduced the number of ICBMs and missile-carrying nuclear submarines than planned.

All of those plans are carry-overs from the Obama administration, as the Trump team has yet to articulate a nuclear weapons strategy.

South Korea says no. One government that won’t have to worry about projected nuclear costs is South Korea. On Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in affirmed that his government won’t seek nuclear weapons despite increasing calls from his hawkish opposition to do so to counter the growing threat from the North.

Pyongyang talking. Despite the warlike rhetoric coming out of the White House, the United States continues to pursue direct talks with North Korea, U.S. officials tell Reuters. Specifically, Joseph Yun, U.S. negotiator with North Korea, has been in contact with diplomats at Pyongyang’s United Nations mission, though it is unclear if anything of substance has been accomplished. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said recently he would push “diplomatic efforts…until the first bomb drops,” president Trump has declared talks between the two sides useless.

War in Afghanistan, redacted. The Afghan government is losing control of more and more territory to the Taliban, according a grim new report from the congressionally-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes spiked by 52 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year, the report notes.

In response to those unfriendly stats, the U.S. military has started to withhold information from the American public, refusing to report figures related to the size and success of Afghan security forces — which the U.S. taxpayer has spent tens of billions to build and sustain.

“The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told the New York Times. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

My own private air force. Faced with a shortage of about 1,500 pilots and budgets strained by expensive new aircraft, the U.S. Air Force is outsourcing much of its combat training to private industry. And two U.S. contractors in particular have scoured the world market — and spent tens of millions — to snap up high-end fighter planes to meet that need. FP’s Paul McLeary has more on the Air Force’s new “Red Air” vision.

F-35As to Japan, new drones on the way to Pacific. Just days before president Trump arrives in the region, the first batch of U.S. Air Force F-35A aircraft have arrived at Kadena Air Base in Japan on a six-month rotation.

The Air Force also said that it will take ownership of the first of a planned 68 MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones next week. The drones, which can stay aloft for 24 hours at a time, will replace the manned EP-3E Aries II aircraft currently used for surveillance in the Pacific region, while allowing the P-8 Poseidon to focus on anti-submarine warfare.

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

New York terror attack. Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan and former Uber driver, killed eight people by ramming his pickup truck into pedestrians on a bike path in New York City on Wednesday. Investigators found notes near Saipov’s vehicle pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State and Mayor Bill de Blasio has labeled the murders as acts of terrorism.

Itinerary. Sorry, folks, but it looks as though the world won’t get a chance to see what President Trump’s deterrence face looks like, as he’ll skip a visit to North Korea’s demilitarized zone during an upcoming trip to South Korea. DMZ visits are often a chance for U.S. presidents (and vice presidents) to squint and scowl across the border at North Korean troops, but Trump is skipping the ritual in favor of a visit to Camp Humphreys, funded by the South Koreans, to highlight the two countries’ burden-sharing on defense.

Target practice. U.S. military officials say that China has been practicing striking the U.S. military base on Guam, sending H-6K “Badger” bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles to test the air defense installations surrounding the island. Officials also say that China has stepped up its intercepts of American military aircraft over the South China Sea and that Chinese and Japanese military aircraft fly close to each other now “on a daily basis.”

Hot seat. Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on Tuesday over their companies’ role in the Russian campaign to interfere in the 2016 election. The session came as Facebook revealed that posts tied to the Kremlin-controlled troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency reached as many as 126 million users – a figure far larger than previously thought. Execs from the three companies played down the magnitude of the Russian content as a small part of a deluge of election-related content that flooded their sites during the 2016 cycle, but the companies are expected to face additional scrutiny today as they face two more hearings before the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Chaos at Gitmo. The trial of a USS Cole attacker Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has descended into complete disorder over classified issues involving attorney-client privilege. Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker excused three of Nashiri’s lawyers based on secret information, refusing to answer questions about his decision to do so when asked by the judge in the case. The move leaves Nashiri with only one attorney, Navy Lt. Alaric Piette, who has never tried a death penalty case, leading Peitte to refuse to file any further pleadings.

Ayatollah and his missiles. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the country to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers in what looks to be an effort to frame them as defensive weapons. Even with that restriction, however, the missiles would still be able to hit Israel and U.S. forces and allies throughout the Middle East. The House of Representatives voted last week to slap new sanctions on Iran due to its long-range ballistic missile efforts, but did not end the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal.

Lebanese Tucanos. Lebanon’s army Tuesday received two A-29 Super Tucano light aircraft from the United States, showing ongoing support for the country even after Israel has accused the Lebanese military of being controlled by Hezbollah. Last week, the U.S. Air Force ordered six more A-29s for the Afghan Air Force. In October, FP reported the U.S. might soon deploy new light aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unintended consequences. Intelligence analysts found Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to be a “gold mine” for information about the Taliban after debriefing him, saying his recollections of his captors methods “reshaped the way we did intel in the area. It confirmed what we knew and what we did not know.” Testifying at Bergdahl’s sentencing hearing for desertion, Defense Department experts says insights gleaned from his debriefing have helped to inform how the Pentagon trains troops to avoid capture and escape if caught.


Elias Groll and John Kester contributed to this report.