Security Brief

Security Brief: Sticking Points at Historic U.S.-India Talks; Making the Carrier Great Again?

Catch up on everything you need to know about the inaugural U.S.-India ministerial dialogue in New Delhi this week, the U.S. Navy’s big step toward building a new unmanned tanker, and more.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a press conference at the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University on July 24, 2018 in Stanford, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a press conference at the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University on July 24, 2018 in Stanford, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The specter of economic sanctions hangs over the historic “2+2” ministerial dialogue between Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Indian counterparts in New Delhi this week. Meanwhile, the Navy is one step closer to fielding an unmanned tanker that will operate from the decks of its aircraft carriers, but is it a sound strategic investment? In other news: the incredible shrinking defense secretary, Afghanistan gets a new commander, and a little bit more.

Good Tuesday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Historic talks. Mattis and Pompeo head to India this week for the first-ever “2+2” ministerial dialogue with their Indian counterparts, scheduled for Sept 6. The aim of the high-level talks, which come amid warming relations between the two countries, is to seal a new defense cooperation agreement that could open the door to billions of dollars in arms deals.

A warming towards India is one of the few policies to have survived the change in administrations, Atman Trivedi and Aparna Pande write for Foreign Policy. In India’s honor, Trump’s Asia strategy is increasingly being framed as “Indo-Pacific,” and the Pentagon recently renamed its Hawaii-based combatant command that oversees the Pacific region in the same fashion. With India now the world’s sixth-largest economy, and growing fears in Washington about a rising China, New Delhi is looking like an increasingly attractive partner (though whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government feels the same way about the United States may be an open question, Trivedi and Pande argue).

But hanging over the talks is the prospect that the Trump administration may impose economic sanctions on New Delhi unless it cancels its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and significantly reduces purchases of oil from Iran, writes Bloomberg.

Related. The warming with India comes as U.S.-Pakistan relations deteriorate. Pompeo is likely to stop in Islamabad for several hours to meet Imran Khan, Pakistan’s new prime minister, but the visit could be tense. The Pentagon recently made a final decision to cancel $300 million in aid to Pakistan that had been suspended over Islamabad’s perceived failure to take decisive action against militants, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, Reuters reports.

Spy games. The FBI tried and failed to flip Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and recruit him as a source in an effort to learn more about the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, according to a bombshell New York Times report.

The report raises new questions about the ongoing battle in Washington to lift sanctions on Deripaska’s business empire. Deripaska has pledged to drastically reduce his stake in the sanctioned holding company—EN+ Group—that controls a large portion of his businesses. The Treasury Department has repeatedly extended the deadline for banks to wind up transactions with the sanctioned company while American officials scrutinize the plan for the Russian oligarch to divest in EN+.

Deripaska’s allies tell the Times that they view the sanctions as partly an act of retaliation against the oligarch for refusing to cooperate with the FBI. The revelation in the Times raises the question whether the sanctions are being deployed as part of an intelligence operation.

Drone on a carrier. The Navy took a big step last week toward fielding an unmanned tanker that will operate from the decks of its aircraft carriers, awarding an up-to $800 million contract to Boeing for the so-called MQ-25 “Stingray.” The idea behind an unmanned naval tanker is to extend the range of the carrier air wing as China increases the capability of its long-range anti-ship weapons. But Jerry Hendrix, former senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, argues that with the Trump administration’s decision to continue buying F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, which currently carry the burden of refueling the other aircraft in the airwing, the Navy should concentrate its resources on long-range precision strike—in other words, developing an unmanned stealth bomber.

Tactical retreats. For much of his term as defense secretary, James Mattis has been seen as one of the most influential voices in President Trump’s orbit, the man who would show deference in public but quietly work to curb the president’s most reckless impulses. But lately, he’s been losing more arguments than he’s winning.

Microwave weapons. The medical mystery surrounding what happened to American diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba and who have reported hearing strange, loud sounds may be clearing up. A group of scientists who examined the case argue that the diplomats may have been targeted by microwave weapons, the New York Times reports.

Advanced military powers have long researched the possibility of a microwave weapons as a psychological and possibly even physical weapon, and Cuba is unlikely to have been able to perfect such a weapon on its own. But as the Times reports, Cuba and Russia have in recent years struck military cooperation agreements that may have brought such a weapon to the island nation.

All politics is local. President Trump’s decision to create an independent branch of the military devoted to outer space may bring a windfall to Southern California’s national security industry, the Los Angeles Times reports. With a high concentration of aerospace firms, Southern California is poised to reap a windfall from the move. But the Times also poses a question: Will Trump seek to block a move that benefit one of his “least favorite places—California”?

Espionage for sale. The United Arab Emirates used commercial spyware acquired from the controversial Israeli firm NSO Group to surveil Qatari officials and an independent journalist, the New York Times reports. NSO has emerged as a central player in the nascent commercial espionage business, but its operations are now under fire in a series of lawsuits that accuse the company of helping both democratic and authoritarian governments spy on rivals, journalists, and members of civil society.

Sleuthing. A mysterious group calling itself IntrusionTruth has in recent months revealed the identities of several hackers believed to be connected to Chinese state intelligence. Now the security firm Crowdstrike has corroborated some of those details and named several individuals it believes are operating on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security.

What, me worry? Scientists warn that the United States is woefully unprepared to cope with a nuclear weapons attack at a time when its nuclear-armed rivals are making major investments in such weapons, Nature reports.

Influence ops. Reddit announced that it took down 143 accounts believed to be linked to an Iranian influence operation, the Daily Dot reports. The move comes on the heels of similar announcements by Facebook and Google in which the companies said they had discovered and blocked an effort by Iranian propagandists to covertly spread pro-Iran content.

Five Eyes watching. Representatives of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership said they planned to step up efforts to name and shame online influence operations, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. The announcement came on the heels of a meeting in Australia where representatives from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States also called on technology companies to do more to combat such operations.

The quest for night-vision. Russia has carried out an aggressive covert campaign to obtain American-made night-vision goggles, Zach Dorfman writes for Yahoo News. Moscow has for decades struggled to produce night-vision goggles comparable to American technology and has instead sought to obtain large quantities of U.S. goggles and other, similar technology.

Another one. Seventeen years into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller assumed command of NATO forces there over the weekend. A former head of Joint Special Operations Command, Miller arrives in Afghanistan as the United States is seeking to raise pressure on the Taliban by increasing the number of American forces training and fighting alongside Afghan forces. The United States is also increasing the number of raids and airstrikes on insurgent forces. So far, the strategy appears to have delivered few dividends, with the Taliban continuing to control large swathes of the country.

Haqqani. The founder of the Haqqani network insurgent group, Jalaluddin Haqqani, has died, a Taliban spokesperson told the Associated Press. Haqqani had been ill for several years and paralyzed for the past decade.

An outing to Pyongyang. South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced Sunday that he will send his top national security adviser and intelligence official to Pyongyang for a meeting Wednesday. The meeting comes ahead of a planned summit later this month between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Heist! North Korea appears to be responsible for hacking into the computers of India’s Cosmos Bank and making off with $13.5 million, Dark Reading reports.

‘No plans at this time.’ Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week the United States has “no plans at this time” to suspend additional military exercises with South Korea. Shortly after that statement, President Donald Trump tweeted that “there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games” but added that he could “instantly” restart the exercises if chose to do so.

Gitmo’s back. The Trump administration is considering sending several prominent captured Islamic State fighters to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, NBC News reports. The detainees potentially bound for Guantanamo include two members of “The Beatles” — the group of British fighters who beheaded Western detainees.

Hot rod hybrid. Defense giant Lockheed Martin is pitching Pentagon officials on a new fighter jet that would be a hybrid of the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, Defense One reports. The plane would take a slightly modified version of the F-22 airframe and equip it with the F-35’s suite of advanced electronics and sensors. The proposal is being shopped as a way to counter future threats from China and Russia.

Assassination. A bombing killed Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine last week. The bomb went off in a cafe and also injured the finance minister of the the break-away enclave.

Milestones. The U.S. Navy marked a pair of milestones last week, with the service beginning the work of integrating the F-35 stealth fighter jet into its aircraft carrier fleet and its next supercarrier reaching 50 percent completion.

Brexit blues. The UK government said it would commission a study to examine the feasibility of building its own satellite navigation system after European authorities threatened to freeze Britain out of its Galileo system, Defense News reports.

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

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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