The Cable

Security Brief: ‘Consequences’ for Iran; The world after Helsinki; Q&A with the Air Force’s top weapons buyer

Catch up on everything you need to know about Trump’s tweeted threat against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the fallout from the Helsinki summit, the Air Force’s plan to invest in hypersonic weapons, and other top news.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a joint press statement at Hofburg Palace on July 4, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Michael Gruber/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a joint press statement at Hofburg Palace on July 4, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Michael Gruber/Getty Images)

Trump’s stunning plan to invite Putin for another summit, this time in Washington, dominated the news cycle last week after the meeting of the two leaders in Helsinki. But he stole his own thunder early Monday, tweeting that Iran would face “consequences” if President Hassan Rouhani continued to threaten the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. has sold more weapons in the last six months than in all of 2017, but in the long-term Trump’s erratic foreign and trade policy could hurt the U.S. defense industry. Plus a Q&A with the Air Force’s top weapons buyer, Boeing gets a new Air Force One contract, and more.

I’m filling in on Security Brief while Elias Groll is on vacation. Send tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

‘CONSEQUENCES’ In an all-caps message on Twitter Monday morning Trump threatened that Iran would face “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED” if Rouhani continued to threaten the United States. The tweet was apparently a response to a speech on Sunday, where Rouhani warned that any conflict between the United States and Iran would be the “mother all all wars.” The exchange, which came as the U.S. threatens harsh sanctions against Tehran after pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, has echoes of Trump’s treatment of North Korea’s Kim Jung Un last summer.

But wait, there’s more… Iran wasn’t the only thing Trump has been tweeting about in the last 24 hours. After spending the last week backtracking on his comments in Helsinki about Russian election interference, the president again cast doubt on the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

“So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election,” Trump tweeted. “Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”

Another summit Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news last week that Trump is planning to invite Putin to visit Washington in the fall, a stunning invitation that left even the nation’s top intelligence official stumped. “Say that again,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, replied during an interview at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “O.K.,” Mr. Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. “That’s going to be special.”

Trump’s missing A-game Helsinki may be the extraordinary moment when Donald Trump’s worst traits were so blatantly self-exposed that even some of his own partisans were forced to say, “Enough.” Dick Polman writes for the Atlantic.

A bit more on Helsinki… In a piece for Foreign Policy, Will Inboden takes stock of the damage Trump caused during the Helsinki summit, and FP’s Colum Lynch interviews former U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering. And, Russia is already bracing for the backlash at home.

Meanwhile across the pond … where are all the planes? The biennial Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom brings together military officials, diplomats, and arms dealers from around the world for plane-watching and deal-making. In other years, the U.S. has sent the Pentagon’s top weapons buyers, and top-end American products, such as the F-35 stealth fighter jet, have taken center stage. But this year, the world’s largest civil and military airshow was unusually quiet — quite literally. There were so few military jets in the flying display that all of Boeing rushed outside to cheer for rival Lockheed Martin’s F-16 demonstration.

The British Defense Ministry stole the show on the first day, unveiling a prototype of a next-generation fighter jet called “Tempest” which at the moment has no U.S. content. Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan diplomatically told reporters at the show that “we of course welcome competition in any venue and we will certainly work in developing technologies with our allies that will be complementary to our capabilities.” The service’s top acquisition civilian, Will Roper, was more blunt: “That’s one of the things I’m hoping to talk about this week with the UK… determining if there is a role they would like us to play.”

Could the lack of U.S. officials and products at Farnborough be a symptom Trump’s erratic defense and foreign policies? Read more.

Other tidbits from the show Boeing is trying to market its legacy F-15 to Germany to replace the aging Panavia Tornado jets that can deliver nuclear weapons; Boeing CEO (and Trump BFF) Dennis Muilenburg expressed concern about Trump’s threatening tariffs and other trade restrictions in a press conference ahead of the show; the Netherlands signed a long-awaited deal to buy unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drones; Spirit Aerospace Systems quietly marketed their work on the Air Force’s mysterious B-21 stealth bomber; L3 Technologies is trying to sell Air Tractor’s light attack and surveillance aircraft, and debuted Bombardier’s Q400M multi-mission aircraft, which is reconfigurable for maritime surveillance, search-and-rescue, transport/medevac, and firefighting; and the new president of the Aerospace Industries Association, former U.S. Army Secretary Eric Fanning, applauded the Trump administration’s new “Buy America” policy in an interview with FP.

Q&A with Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics:

On accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons:

Currently schedules are years ahead of the original ones. We’ve got work to do to tighten these up, but I’m hoping for initial fielding late 2021 or early 2022. A caveat I’ll put is that this is an embrace failure, test heavy scheme, so if we learn something we will have to fix it, but until we write down an aggressive schedule like that we will do no better than it.

On the F-35:

What I predict is you will see a growing interest in F-35 in countries as we continue flying more. We are getting glowing feedback, and I’m not used to hearing that from operators so early. I would say the program is green with a little yellow, it’s not the blood red that people so often think it is.

On artificial intelligence:

We are not doing enough in AI, we are not doing it at the scale the way we need to. I am very focused on bringing AI into our tactical systems. There is no reasons that systems that have to work in some kind of autonomous mode can’t have AI in them, for example surveillance drones.

The issue is going to be scale. You have to put in the infrastructure and data curation that is necessary to do learning at a macro level, that means all of the data that our military produces needs to be stored in a way that can be discovered by other machines the way the internet was. We don’t do that currently, and because we don’t do that we don’t have the benefit of what the commercial innovation sector does.

On DoD’s move to the cloud:

We have to get to something that looks like enterprise-wide cloud, and we need to pick sets of data we think are critically important and put in the investment to get them properly curated and annotated for machine discovery. Until we do that you really can’t begin the fun of applying AI.

What’s the goal?

I’d like while I’m still in this job to get the first AI operationalized. I think what it will allow us to do is improve in mission performance and efficiency for the operator. In the case of drones I would hope that a drone that’s shot down one way on day one isn’t shot down on day two, so very similar to Tesla cars passing that information around. That doesn’t seem too complex to me.

Defending Ukraine Days after Trump challenged whether the U.S. should honor its Article 5 defense commitments to defend tiny NATO member Montenegro, the Pentagon reassured its Eastern European allies it would continue to be a deterrent against Russian aggression and committed an additional $200 million to “training, equipment and advisory efforts to build the defensive capacity of Ukraine’s forces, Military Times reports.

Not quite ‘solved’ In the month following Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong Un, the president and his negotiation team are discovering the capriciousness of their North Korean counterparts, the Washington Post reports. The rogue regime has so far canceled follow-up meetings to implement the Singapore joint statement, demanded more money, and remained unperturbed in developing its nuclear programs. According to White House aides and State Department officials, the president is in private frustrated by the stand-still in denuclearization negotiations.

Midterm elections interference As Trump struggles to elucidate his stance on Russian meddling, Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security and trust, revealed during an Aspen Security Forum panel that the same Russian hacking group that had breached the DNC in 2016 have conducted three different hacks into 2018 midterm campaigns this year. Though Burt declined to name the hacked campaigns, Microsoft provides security services to clients in both Democratic and Republican parties.

Problematic aircraft Some B-1 heavy bombers suffer from a faulty ejection seat system, but this has not stopped the U.S. Air Force from dispatching these aircrafts on missions around the globe, FP’s Lara Seligman reports. Air Force leadership cleared B-1s to fly even after the ejection seat of a crew member failed to escape during an in-flight emergency. According to a Military Times investigation, there have been 35 fatalities among pilots and crew members since last October, the highest rate in six years.

Radio silence The State Department remained conspicuously silent on the fourth anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a tragedy resulted from a Russian missile fired from a military unit near the Ukrainian border. According to a FP exclusive by Robbie Gramer and Amy MacKinnon, the State Department, despite having prepared a scathing draft statement on the incident, never issued it. The same draft appeared on the U.S. embassy’s website in Moscow briefly before it was taken down.

Weapons sales According to Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the U.S. has sold more weapons in the past six months than it had in the entire year of 2017, as the Trump administration pushes for more arms sales in order to stimulate the economy. So far in the 2018 fiscal year, America has signed around $46.9 billion in selling weapons to foreign allies, which eclipsed the $41.9 billion in all four quarters of the 2017 fiscal year.

Immigration limbo Around 1,000 recruits from the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest — a program that provides a path to citizenship for talented individuals who are of value to the U.S. military — may see consequences as dire as having their visas expire due to Department of Defense suspending the program out of national security concerns back in 2016. The DoD explained that certain MAVNI recruitees were unable to obtain security requirements because they had falsified their background records and had connections to foreign intelligence agencies.

New Air Force One Boeing received a $3.9 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force, promising to deliver two next-generation Air Force One planes by 2024, Defense News reports. The deal was based on a handshake agreement this February between Trump and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who were committed to the spending cap.

Rumor mills WhatsApp, a popular messaging application owned by Facebook, is limiting its message-forwarding function worldwide following the death of more than 20 people in India. The victims were murdered by mobs who were riled up by false messages they had received on WhatsApp about child-kidnapping gangs. The Indian government formally requested the tech company combat misinformation on its platform earlier last month, and WhatsApp has decided to restrict the number of groups to which a message could be forwarded as a solution.

Correction, July 23, 2018: Boeing received a $3.9 billion contract from the U.S. Air Force for two new Air Force One planes. A previous version of this article misstated that the contract would be worth $3.9 million.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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