The Cable

SitRep: Trump Heading to Asia; Niger Wants U.S. to Arm its Drones

Trump's Pentagon starting to fill up, Japan not worried about Chinese influence.

President Donald Trump smiles as Defense Secretary James Mattis looks on at the White House on October 5.   (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump smiles as Defense Secretary James Mattis looks on at the White House on October 5. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Trump, NK, and Japan. North Korea will take center stage next week when President Donald Trump visits Japan, Minister Takehiro Shimada, spokesperson for the Japanese Embassy, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

“I think now is the time for the international community to exert the utmost pressure,” on the regime, Shimada said, adding that the tough enforcement of existing sanctions is preferable to any military action. Asked whether he was concerned that China might sway Trump to view North Korea differently, Shimada answered, “not at all.” Given that the U.S.-Japan alliance is “iron clad.” Japan would welcome any pressure the United States could put on China, he said.

Presidential agenda, complete with aircraft carriers. Trump’s high-stakes trip kicks off Friday with a briefing from Pacific Command in Hawaii followed by stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The U.S. Navy will have three aircraft carriers in the region during Trump’s visit, and the U.S. Air Force, in a previously-planned deployment, has just sent its first F-35A aircraft to Japan.

Regional allies will be looking for answers about the administration’s policy for the region. Trump and his team have criticized Obama’s “pivot” strategy, but haven’t offered a compelling vision of its own.

And this. From Reuters: “North Korea may be planning a new missile test, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers on Thursday, after brisk activity was spotted at its research facilities, just days before U.S. President Donald Trump visits Seoul.”

Who’s where when. At 9:30 a.m. the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing for several Trump Pentagon nominees who have been waiting around since July. Dr. Mark Esper for Secretary Of The Army; Robert Wilkie for Under Secretary Of Defense For Personnel And Readiness; Joseph Kernan for Under Secretary Of Defense For Intelligence; and Guy Roberts for Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Nuclear, Chemical And Biological Defense Programs will have their day on the Hill. Livestream here.

1:00 p.m. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will hold a press conference at the Pentagon on the results of the Fleet Comprehensive Review, as well as the findings of investigations into the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. Livestream here.

About those collisions. The Navy has already provided harrowing details of the suffering and heroism displayed by sailors during those incidents, and recommended changes in training and operations as a result.

Here comes the Trump Pentagon. Ten months into the Trump administration, and dozens of long-vacant desks in the Pentagon’s E-Ring may finally start filling up, FP’s Paul McLeary reports.

Now that Arizona Republican John McCain says he’s satisfied with the military’s briefings on the new strategy in Afghanistan, he has released his hold on a slew of nominations held up in the Senate since the summer. But the vacancies have already had a number of pernicious effects, from foisting much of the Pentagon’s work onto uniformed officers to leaving critical desks like Asia undermanned at a time of rising tensions in the region.

U.S. drone base in Niger on hold. Given tough terrain, sand storms, and other logistical hurdles, the U.S. Africa Command is putting off completion of its $100 million drone base in Niger until next year, Stars and Stripes reports. The command planned to finish the facility in Agadez this year, but is now aiming for some time in 2018. The site will host U.S. forces, and a flight line.

Will those drones be armed? The Nigerien defense minister has said his government has asked Washington to start flying armed drones over his country, but hasn’t received an answer yet. Likewise, the country’s Prime Minister, Brigi Rafini, said this week his country is open to American armed drones patrolling the skies to hunt for militants.

More on the Kurds. The post-independence referendum reality doesn’t look bright for Iraqi Kurds, and an ongoing military showdown with Baghdad over control of a key border crossing underscores the problems, FP’s Rhys Dubin reports.

No debate. House Republicans quietly torpedoed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday that called for ending all U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen. The resolution cwould have required a vote on the floor regardless of whether it enjoyed support from a committee.

Supporters wanted to see a debate and a vote to shed light on the issue, as they argue the United States is aiding and abetting a campaign that has helped trigger the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  But the Republican leadership stripped the legislation of its privileged status. Here’s the text of the bill, and the back story to the bill by FP’s Dan De Luce.

Pence pal gets nod at State. The Trump administration has nominated an associate of Vice President Mike Pence for a top diplomatic role historically reserved for senior career diplomats, FP’s Robbie Gramer writes, “prompting fears President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plan to further politicize American diplomacy.”

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

Another one bites the dust. The sexual harassment scandal that began with revelations about Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has led to the resignation of British Defense Minister Michael Fallon. Fallon said that his behavior towards women had “fallen short” at times, including an incident in 2002 during which he inappropriately touched journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer during a dinner.

Wrench in the works. President Trump’s recent tweet about accused New York City terrorist could complicate prosecutors’ efforts to try and convict Sayfullo Saipov for the murder of eight people in a vehicle attack earlier this week. Trump tweeted that the “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” potentially giving Saipov’s defense team the ability to argue that Trump has poisoned jury pools and made it impossible for Saipov to receive a fair trial.

Shame, shame, we know your name. U.S. intelligence knows exactly who in Russian intelligence was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee and the Department of Justice could bring charges against a half dozen Russian intelligence officers involved in the breach, according to a breaking scoop from the Wall Street Journal. Federal prosecutors have been working on an investigation into the break-ins for roughly a year and charges against Russian intelligence officials could come as early as 2018.

Social media hearings. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee blasted the general counsels of Google, Facebook, and Twitter on Wednesday for their inability to stop Russia from using their platforms to spread propaganda during the 2016 election. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the committee, used the hearing as an opportunity to cast doubt on the claim that Russian propaganda ads targeting the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin helped to swing the election, claiming that “almost five times more ads were targeted at the [reliably Democratic-voting] state of Maryland than of Wisconsin.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s counterparts in the House separately released a batch of Facebook ads and social media posts developed by the Russian Internet Research Agency troll farm. Among the postings were petitions to remove Hillary Clinton from the 2016 ballot, calls for Texas’s secession, and an image showing Satan arm wrestling Jesus to determine whether Clinton will win the 2016 election.

Document dump. The CIA released another tranche of files captured during the raid that killed former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. The Agency gave Long War Journal advance access to some of the files found in Bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad, including a document in which an al-Qaeda lieutenant discusses the group’s complicated relationship with Iran in detail. The author explains that Iran offered training, money, and safe haven to al-Qaeda operatives in Iran in exchange for their targeting of Tehran’s Gulf adversaries — a relationship which soon strained as al Qaeda members bucked the terms of the agreement and Iran cracked down on them.

For those curious about the other files found in Bin Laden’s home, the CIA has posted links to them on its website and someone has helpfully coded a Twitter account which tweets out images of photos found in the deceased al-Qaeda leader’s lair.

Syria. Israel and Syria have once again traded fire after an apparent Israeli airstrike deep into Syrian territory. Syrian news outlets reported that Israeli aircraft struck a facility in a suburb of Homs, leading Assad regime forces to launch surface to air missiles at the attacking planes.

F-35. The F-35 stealth fighter jet has another problem, leading to a month long delay in deliveries of the aircraft and potentially further delays as contractor Lockheed Martin applies fixes across the 250 jets already delivered. The problem centers on fastener holes on the aircraft’s fuselage where the company forgot to apply primer, leading to corrosion issues.

Sealift. A new Government Accountability Office reports says the support ships of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command are rapidly aging, endangering the service’s ability to supply its combat vessels in the event of war. “Over 90 percent of the equipment, personnel, fuel and other cargo necessary to sustain a major conflict is moved by sealift ships, but the readiness of the aging surge sealift fleet is trending downward,” the authors of the report concluded.

Tough Launch for NASA Nominee. It wasn’t an easy launch for the Trump administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, on Wednesday. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) said Bridenstine was unfit for the space post, calling him partisan and questioning his views on climate change, in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. FP reported on Bridenstine’s then-upcoming hearing and what experts called an incoherent space policy from the administration.

Elon’s Air Force. Last month, the U.S. Air Force awarded a contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop a propulsion system that could eventually send humans to Mars. That the contract went through the Air Force, and not NASA, caused some to suggest the Trump administration may be “laundering” money for space exploration through the military, whose budget generally receives less scrutiny from Congress. But the contract came as a response to a section of the 2015 defense bill, which “requires the Department to develop a next-generation rocket propulsion system,” an Air Force spokeswoman told FP.

 

Emily Tamkin, Dan De Luce, and John Kester contributed.

 

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

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