The Cable

SitRep: House Passes $700B Defense Bill. Sort Of. Maybe.

A coup that's not a coup; Taliban snipers.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford greet House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) on June 12, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford greet House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) on June 12, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

New defense budget. Maybe. House Republicans and Democrats voted 356-70 Tuesday to pass a 2018 defense bill that would find the Pentagon to the tune of $626 billion, with an additional $66 billion for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria (and places like Yemen, Somalia…). The bill buys more ships and aircraft than president’s original request that sought $603 billion.

So what’s that mean? The bill still needs to go to the Senate for approval, and then president Trump’s desk for his signature. But we have a problem, namely the 2011 Budget Control Act which caps defense spending at $549 billion. So, we have a bit of a discrepancy here. If only there were an elected legislative body that could vote to change unpopular laws, there might be a way out of this mess.

U.S. ups strikes in Yemen. American aircraft have hit Islamic State targets in Yemen three times in recent days, in an air campaign that began back on Oct. 16. “The strikes took place as the Islamic State has intensified its attacks on Yemeni security forces in the southern city of Aden,” the Long War Journal points out, while also providing a map pinpointing where the bombs are dropping.

Siege effect. The charity Save the Children warned on Wednesday that the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemeni sea and air ports would increase the death toll for starving children in the country beyond the projected 50,000 for this year.

Aid organizations have condemned the Saudi coalition for the blockade after a ballistic missile fired from Houthi-held territory was intercepted near the Riyadh airport earlier this month. Saudi officials said Monday they would take steps to lift part so the blockade. Saudi missile defense systems have intercepted over 100 rockets from Yemen since 2015.

Not authorized. Lawmakers in the House overwhelmingly backed a resolution this week saying the U.S. military’s refueling and intel support for the Saudi-led air war in Yemen is not authorized under legislation passed by Congress. It was a non-binding resolution, but it sent a symbolic message to the White House that members of both parties have reservations about the U.S. role in the two year-old war.

Coup! Zimbabwe’s military seized power early on Wednesday targeting what it referred to as “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe but gave assurances on national television that the 93-year-old leader and his family were “safe and sound.” Despite the presence of uniformed spokesmen from the army taking over state-run tv, the military insists that it’s not a coup, however.

Rest and refit. North Korea hasn’t fired a missile in two months, but that’s in keeping with its normal seasonal testing schedule, Bloomberg points out. The Korean People’s Army regularly enters its training cycle every winter “and getting ready for it involves a calm before the storm,” said Van Jackson, a strategy fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

No Trans ban. The Pentagon released a statement Tuesday confirming that an active duty servicemember underwent gender reassignment surgery after receiving a waiver from the department. Spokesman Dana White said that the procedure was necessary because the servicemember “had already begun a sex-reassignment course of treatment.”

The procedure happened in spite of president Trump’s July tweet that the federal government “will not accept or allow” transgender troops to serve “in any capacity” in the military. In response, the Pentagon said it would undertake a study of the issue, which is due early next year.

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

Indicators of compromise. The Department of Homeland Security is giving the public a glimpse at North Korean hacking campaigns, sharing information about malware dubbed “FALLCHILL” along with known IP addresses used by the North’s cyber services. The department says North Korean hackers have targeted victims in sectors ranging from finance to aerospace and telecommunications.  

OIR claims external operations scalps. The U.S.-led anti Islamic State coalition announced that its airstrikes killed four senior members of the group, including media officials, a “weapons facilitator,” and leaders of the Islamic State’s external operations cell planning attacks in Europe and the West. The coalition killed Omer Demir, described as an “external operations coordinator” with links to ISIS networks in the Middle East and Europe in Iraq in October, followed by external operations plotted Abdellah Hajjiaou in Syria this month.

Apply cold water directly to that burn. Russia’s Ministry of Defense claims that it accidentally used pictures taken from the AC-130 Gunship Simulator videogame as evidence of what it claims was U.S. complicity in helping the Islamic State escape the Syrian town of Albu Kamal, blaming the incident on a civilian employee. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon responded to the claims with a fairly sick burn, saying “The Russian ministry of defense statements are about as accurate as their air campaign and I think that is a reason for them to start, you know, coming out with their latest barrage of lies.”

Raqqa deal fallout. Turkey is severely unhappy with a report from the BBC that U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allowed Islamic State fighters to flee Raqqa as part of an agreement with local leaders blessed by the United States. Turkey, which considers the predominantly Kurdish groups that comprise the SDF to be terrorists, described the deal as “appalling” and “extremely troubling.”

Taliban SOF. The Taliban’s new special operations Red Unit is carrying out night operations with the help of Russian night vision goggles and American M4 carbines in a series of nighttime raids that killed as many as 70 police officers this week, according to some estimates. Taliban officials claim that their night vision gear is captured from Afghan forces but the Taliban’s gear is believed to be either Russian, Iranian or Pakistani.

Venezuela sanctions. It’s not just the United States sanctioning Venezuelan officials, now the European Union (EU) is getting in on the game, preparing an embargo on weapons sales to the country in response to what it says were sham elections held last month. For the moment, EU officials haven’t said which senior Venezuelan officials they’d target with economic sanctions, leaving the possibility open as leverage in future talks with the Venezuelan government.


FP’s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

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