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Security Brief: What Trump’s Space Force Will and Won’t Do; U.S. Sanctions Rattle Markets, Allies

Catch up on everything you need to know about Trump’s Space Force, the impact of powerful new White House sanctions on Russia, Turkey and Iran, an interview with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel, and more.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announces the Trump administration's plan to create the U.S. Space Force by 2020 during a speech at the Pentagon August 9, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announces the Trump administration's plan to create the U.S. Space Force by 2020 during a speech at the Pentagon August 9, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump’s Space Force is one step closer to reality, but there is some question as to what exactly the newest branch of the armed services will do. Meanwhile, new White House sanctions on Moscow, Ankara and Tehran are roiling global markets and unsettling U.S. allies, an update on North Korean missile development, the spy who infiltrated ISIS, five questions for the man in charge of U.S. Central Command, and more.

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President Trump’s Space Force is one step closer to reality, but there is some question as to what exactly the newest branch of the armed services will do. Meanwhile, new White House sanctions on Moscow, Ankara and Tehran are roiling global markets and unsettling U.S. allies, an update on North Korean missile development, the spy who infiltrated ISIS, five questions for the man in charge of U.S. Central Command, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to

Star Wars. Vice President Mike Pence rolled out a detailed new plan to establish Trump’s Space Force as a sixth branch of the military in a widely watched speech at the Pentagon last week. But how will Space Force actually change U.S. operations in space? Let’s start with what it won’t do:

Fight Space ISIS: Contrary to popular opinion, the Space Force’s primary job will not be to fend off the Islamic State in space.

Militarize space: “Space has been used for military purposes from the beginning, so it is arguably already fully militarized,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for International and Strategic studies.

Rather, the Space Force is a response to the development of new weapons by Russia and China that threaten U.S. satellites. If the U.S. leaves its space assets vulnerable to these new threats, the likelihood of a conflict increases, Harrison argued.

So what will it do?

Consolidate U.S. space forces: Space Force will serve to consolidate in one place all the men and women from across the Air Force, Navy and Army that already buy satellites and oversee the movement of U.S. assets in space. The Defense Department hopes this will make operations more streamlined and effective.

Speed up the deployment of new capabilities: The Pentagon hopes the new Space Development Agency being established as part of the new Space Force will accelerate the development, acquisition and deployment of new space capabilities in response to Russia and China’s aggressive moves in this area.

Cost money: Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters that he’s not sure right now how much it will cost to stand up Space Force, but he estimates it will probably be in the billions of dollars.

Top talker. The New York Times tells the incredible story of Capt. Harith al-Sudani, who infiltrated the Islamic State and helped foil some four dozen bombings. The story provides a revealing portrait of Iraqi intelligence operations against the Islamic State and one officer’s effort to infiltrate the terror group.

You’re sanctioned! American sanctions on Turkey and Russia sent the currencies of these countries sliding last week. The ruble plunged against the dollar and Russian stocks saw serious losses, with investors fearing that Washington might levy additional sanctions against Moscow for its alleged use of a chemical weapon in the attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain.

With President Donald Trump announcing levies on Turkish steel and aluminum, relations between Washington and Ankara hit a new low amid a stand-off over the fate of an imprisoned American pastor. The sanctions are placing major pressure on the Turkish economy, with the lira losing 28 percent of its value against the dollar in just the last month.

The crisis in relations may have serious repercussions for defense cooperation between the two NATO allies, as Congress included a measure to halt the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey in the annual defense policy bill, which Trump is expected to sign into law this week.  

Elsewhere, the renewed American sanctions regime against Iran is threatening to cause a major rift with European allies. Last week, European officials called the punitive measures against Iran a violation of international law and said they are moving to block American penalties on European firms doing business with Iran.

The stand-off between Washington and Iran presents the latest challenge for the special relationship between the United States and Britain, and on Sunday the U.S. ambassador to London penned an op-ed in the Telegraph pleading with the UK to back the American sanctions.

Whether the Iran sanctions will alter the strategic calculus in Iran remains unclear, as the measures are more likely to impact ordinary Iranians than the country’s elite. On FP’s Editor’s Roundtable podcast this week, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was imprisoned in Iran on false charges of espionage, discusses life under sanctions in Iran.

Keep your powder dry. The White House is drafting a measure that would allow it to strike back against foreigners who try to meddle in American elections, the Washington Post reports. The draft executive order would empower President Trump to levy sanctions against groups and individuals who engage in election interference, to include disinformation campaigns. The sanctions would be discretionary but would allow the president to impose penalties against 10 of the 30 largest companies in a country that tries to interfere in American politics.  

The art of the deal. The Trump administration is looking to further cut aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and may withhold as much $200 million amid growing security tensions, FP’s Colum Lynch reports. The proposed cuts would eliminate nearly all direct American aid to Palestinians.  

Summit mania. The leaders of North and South Korea will meet in Pyongyang for their third summit meeting in September, authorities in Seoul announced. The agenda for the meeting remains unclear, amid serious questions about the implementation of the Singapore summit agreement.

The talking point that won’t die. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attempted on Friday to cling to a shred of good news from the Trump administration’s diplomatic opening toward North Korea, telling reporters that Pyongyang still hasn’t demonstrated a reliable re-entry vehicle and fusing mechanism. Still, he cautioned, “we have to assume [Kim Jong Un] might shoot one … so we have to be ready.”

Details on Google’s China project. The Intercept reports that Google used a Chinese search engine it acquired in 2008 as a source of data to build a censored version of its search tool that complies with Chinese internet restrictions. Google engineers used data from the site to understand the search habits of Chinese users and which websites were restricted, then integrated that data into its main search tool, and applied changes to comply with Chinese censorship.

F-15s scrambled. F-15C fighter jets belonging to Oregon’s National Guard scrambled Saturday to intercept an airplane stolen by a suicidal maintenance worker from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The plane crashed, and the pilot died. The incident is raising troubling questions about airport security.

Honored guests. During a rare visit to the Pentagon last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, pushed back against a NYT story suggesting the Afghan government treats captured fighters identifying with ISIS Khorasan, the branch of the Islamic State active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, like honored guests. Votel also fielded questions on the broader U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Iran’s activities in the Strait of Hormuz, and the battle to defeat ISIS in Syria.

On the NYT story:

The government of Afghanistan has assured us that these ISIS Khorasan fighters will be treated as war prisoners. They have been transferred from Jawzjan province to government detention facilities, where they are investigated and held to account for any war crimes that they are found to have committed.  

I assessed that the reporting on this topic was a moment in time after the surrender when the Afghans were working through the details, something which the Afghan government has said they could have managed better.  It’s important to remember that many ISIS-K fighters did quit the fight and that is a good thing. Taking ISIS-K fighters off the battlefield through attrition or surrender will make not only Afghanistan a safer place, but also protects the United States and its partners and allies.

On progress in ceasefire talks to prevent violence in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah:

I think what we are seeing right now is a combination of military pressure and political pressure largely being orchestrated by the U.N. Special Envoy Mr. Griffiths, that I think is resulted in some progress in terms of moving forward, because we’re bringing the parties to discuss.

On Iran showcasing its military capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz ahead of the planned re-imposition of U.S. sanctions:

I think it’s pretty clear to us that they were trying to use [a recent large, off-schedule naval] exercise to send a message to us that as we approach this period of the sanctions here, that they had some capabilities.  

I think the purpose of any messages that we would send would be to highlight, to them, that we are paying attention. We are very vigilant. We are aware of what’s going on, and we remain ready to protect ourselves as we pursue our objectives of freedom of navigation and the freedom of commerce in international waters.

On the final phase of the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria:

The preparations for that are on track. The forces have been assembled.  We are well integrated with them and we are getting very good cooperation from the Iraqi security forces on the other side of the border. There has been a very good collaboration between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi security forces as we have moved down into that area. But like most of our fights against ISIS, I expect that this will be a difficult one.

[After the final battle] we need to move them on what I call consolidation of gains.  There will be remnants of ISIS that will still be there. So, we will need to continue operations to root them out and keep the pressure on them.  

On the possibility of Russia capitalizing on a U.S. withdrawal of support for Syria:

Russia is trying to exert their authority and their presence, their influence across the region. We de-conflict with them, and that’s largely a professional military-to-military exchange with us.

But I would highlight that it’s also Russia that is enabling the Syrian regime. It’s enabling the Syrian regime to pursue the murderous tactic of barrel bombing of their own people. It’s Russia that’s blocked full accountability for the Syrian Regime for their use of chemical munitions against their people.

These are destabilizing activities in the region. It’s an aspect of great power competition that plays out right here in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

Hackathon. Hackers in Las Vegas spent the weekend at the annual DEF CON hacking conference picking apart voting systems and exposing vulnerabilities in the machines that will be used in this year’s midterm elections. But with those elections rapidly approaching, the Wall Street Journal reports that the event is exposing serious divisions between the voting machine industry and security researchers. XKCD weighs in on the issue.

Crackdown on Pakistan. The Trump administration has quietly started cutting scores of Pakistani officers from coveted training and educational programs that have been a hallmark of bilateral military relations for more than a decade, U.S. officials say. The move is one of the first known consequences of Trump’s decision this year to suspend U.S. security assistance in order to Pakistan to compel it to crack down on Islamic militants.

Iran resumes missile testing. For the first time in more than a year, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile in a brazen display of defiance months after Trump pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and days before his administration slapped new sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The test coincided with a large-scale naval exercise by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces late last week involving more than 50 small gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz.

Behind the scenes. Senior American national security officials, seeking to prevent Trump from upending a formal policy agreement at last month’s NATO meeting, pushed the military alliance’s ambassadors to complete it before the forum even began. The efforts are a sign of the lengths to which the president’s top advisers will go to protect a key and longstanding international alliance from Trump’s antics.

AI soul searching. Artificial intelligence researchers are proposing that people who work in the field need to give more consideration to the ethical implications of their work, Axios reports. Amid growing questions about the impact of computer learning systems, researchers want more  peer-reviewed papers to examine how a given research advance will impact society.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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