Security Brief

Security Brief: Trump’s Budget Hits the Streets; Aid on Fire in Venezuela

Trump administration seeks another major hike in defense spending.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford answer questions before an arrival ceremony for Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar at the Pentagon  February 22, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford answer questions before an arrival ceremony for Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar at the Pentagon February 22, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It’s that time of year again: Budget season. This year, President Donald Trump’s annual request to Congress is sure to make waves on Capitol Hill, particularly in the newly Democratic House, by championing a sizeable hike in defense spending at the expense of domestic agencies.

The White House is reportedly proposing a 5 percent cut across federal agencies, except for defense spending, as part of its budget request for fiscal year 2020. The budget blueprint, which is subject to congressional approval will include a massive $750 billion for national defense, using a controversial budget gimmick to skirt congressional budget caps, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports.

In addition, the roadmap, which is due to be released on Monday, will also include $8.6 billion for a border wall, multiple outlets reported.

The proposal to increase defense spending while chopping education, health and environmental protections will likely be met with fierce opposition from lawmakers. But at least one group is satisfied: Pentagon budget planners. In this year’s request, the Department of Defense would get $718 billion, which reflects growth of 4.7 percent over last year’s top line and is actually a higher figure than military officials had been expecting.

So what’s in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2020? The specifics won’t be revealed until Tuesday, but some details have trickled out over the past few weeks:

  • The Missile Defense Agency will get $9.5 billion, a decrease from last year’s $9.9 billion despite Trump’s promise to build up America’s missile defense arsenal to counter new threats from Russia and China, FP reported.
  • Instead, the Pentagon will ask for additional money for offensive systems, including $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons.
  • Bloomberg reported that $104 billion will go for research-and-development, $9 billion more than appropriated in fiscal 2019.
  • The Army is asking for $190 billion in total, an increase of $8 billion from the year before, according to Defense News.
  • At the direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Air Force will ask to buy eight upgraded F-15 fighter jets from Boeing, as well as additional F-35s from Lockheed Martin.
  • And the Navy will propose delaying the midlife refueling of the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier, essentially retiring it two decades early, in exchange for buying two new Gerald Ford-class carriers, which will come online starting in the late 2020s.

Caught in a lie. Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, last week accused Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro of torching a convoy of humanitarian aid as millions in his country suffer illness and hunger. But there’s just one problem: Unpublished footage obtained by The New York Times seems to show that the opposition itself, not Maduro’s men, set the cargo on fire accidentally.

Washington

‘Cost plus 50.’ Under White House direction, the administration is drawing up demands that Germany, Japan and eventually any other country hosting U.S. troops pay the full price of American soldiers deployed on their soil — plus 50 percent or more for the privilege of hosting them, Bloomberg reports.

Wilson out. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, one of just a handful of top female leaders in Trump’s Pentagon, submitted her resignation on Friday, bringing to a close months of speculation over whether she would be nominated for secretary of defense—or fired.

Some explaining to do. In a letter to Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan made public Friday, a group of five House Democrats led by Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., demanded the Pentagon chief turn over an exhaustive trove documents from 25 categories related to President Donald Trump’s controversial national emergency declaration.

Sleuthing. The Guardian identified the backers of three shell companies that gave $25,000 each to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, which pulled in a record-setting $107 million in donations. The companies include one backed by a Indian financier based in London, one formed by a lobbyist with links to the Taiwanese government, and another by an Israeli real estate developer. U.S. law generally prohibits foreign political donations.

Press freedom. The Trump administration’s aggressive use of leak investigations is chilling the work of national-security reporters in Washington, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports.

U.S. Military

‘Female problems.’ With women increasingly serving in the U.S. military, the force is frequently failing to provide them with adequate medical care, a new BuzzFeed investigation finds. “In the cases of at least six of the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News, military doctors’ inability or unwillingness to properly diagnose women’s health problems put their lives at risk and often created serious new medical issues. For many, it ended their military career. Most said they were properly, quickly, and easily diagnosed by civilian doctors after meeting dead ends with military doctors for years,” the outlet reports.

Arms race. Before the INF Treaty expires in August, the Pentagon will start fabricating parts for banned “ground-launched cruise missile” systems being developed since late 2017, Steve Trimble reports for Aviation Week.

ALIS in wonderland. The F-35 fighter jet’s Autonomic Logistics Information System – billed by manufacturer Lockheed Martin as a state-of-the-art, automatic logistics backbone – was supposed to consolidate training, maintenance and supply chain management functions into a single entity, making it easier for users to input data and oversee the jet’s health and history throughout its life span. But the system, fondly known as “ALIS,” has proven so clunky and burdensome to work with that the U.S. Air Force’s instructor pilots, as well as students learning to fly the aircraft, have stopped using the system, Defense News reports.

Gray Eagles. With the U.S. military chipping away at the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has emerged as a potent force in the U.S. military’s fight against the group, Yahoo News reports. The unit, which flies Gray Eagle drones and is deployed in theatre, is credited with killing hundreds of militant fighters.  

The Columbia-class. The Pentagon is standing up a new office to oversee the massive Columbia-class submarine acquisition program, Breaking Defense reports.

The XQ-58A. The Air Force released footage of its latest combat drone, the XQ-58A, making its first flight. “It is hoped that the XQ-58A will provide a low cost surveillance, strike, and electronic warfare support capability that can be operated independently, as a cooperative swarm, or as part of a so called ‘loyal wingman’ concept of operations a group of Q-58s would work under the command of a nearby manned combat aircraft,” the Drive reports.

Asia

Singapore buildup. Last month, Singapore passed its biggest ever defense budget worth US$16.7 billion, or around 30 percent of the government’s total planned expenditure for 2019, with rich earmarks for defense, security and related diplomacy, as the island nation moves to shore up its defenses.

Defying sanctions. A new report to the United Nations Security Council expected to be issued this week will show North Korea is evading U.N. sanctions intended to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-weapons programs and long-range missiles, accelerating its import of petroleum products through illicit ship-to-ship transfers and stepping up coal exports.

North Korea. Fresh satellite imagery covering North Korean launch sites indicate the country may be preparing for a space launch. The images from the Sohae launch site document movement of rail-mounted facilities and the installation of shrouds around key facilities. The images come on the heels of a failed summit meeting in Vietnam intended to deliver concrete pledges building on last year’s vague agreement in Singapore.

Through the looking glass. The founder of a chain of spas where Patriots owner Bob Kraft was recently accused of soliciting sex has been selling access to President Donald Trump to Chinese investors, Mother Jones reports. In a follow-up story, Mother Jones reports that the massage parlor magnate, Li Yang, also has ties to the Chinese government.

Crackdown. Chinese authorities have arrested a senior scientist involved in the development of the country’s submarine forced and accused him of holding dual citizenship with Canada, the Ottawa Citizen reports.

Europe and Russia

Russian jamming. Decrying what it calls continued “electronic harassment” of critical communications systems and networks by the Russian government, the Norwegian Armed Forces are exploring the use of new methods and technologies to better protect military communications against interference and jamming of GPS systems.

Don’t Believe the Hype(ersonics). Russia’s new hypersonic weapons might not the doomsday weapon the Kremlin would like you to think they are. Experts believe they pose their biggest risk as part of conventional warfare, where their speed and stealth enable them to deliver surprise strikes, FP’s Amy MacKinnon reports.  

Communists and Christian Democrats. With an increasingly fractured party system here in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, the center-right Christian Democratic Union has a chance at coming in first in this fall’s state elections and leading the government for the first time in the state’s post-Berlin Wall history, Emily Schultheis writes for Foreign Policy.

Buying gas from Putin. A German-Russian pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, has been a bone of contention between Berlin and Washington, which fears it will make Europe’s largest economy excessively reliant on Russian energy. Now the dispute is coming to a head, in a graphic example of how Russia’s estrangement from the West, far from bringing its members closer, is driving a wedge between the closest of allies.

Turkey. Pentagon officials issued a stern warning to Turkey that it risks grave consequences, including being blocked from acquiring the F-35 fighter jet, if it moves ahead with the acquisition of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, Defense News reports.

Africa

Bombardment. A rise in U.S. airstrikes on parts of Somalia over the past two years has prompted increasing numbers of civilians to flee their homes and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis fueled by years of war and extreme weather, Amanda Sperber writes for Foreign Policy.

Algeria protests. Pressure is mounting on Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down as workers at the country’s massive state oil and gas companies went on strike on Sunday and some opposition groups urged the military to intervene after more than two weeks of protests.

‘U.N. Shuttle.’ At least 22 people who worked for United Nations-affiliated agencies were killed on Sunday when a Kenya-bound flight from Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, crashed after takeoff. The crash killed all 157 people aboard and raised questions about the safety of the model of aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8 — coincidentally, one of the programs Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan oversaw during his time at Boeing.

Following the crash, the second disaster in five months involving a Boeing 737 Max 8, several airlines have grounded those jets.

Middle East

Last sliver. Tens of thousands of dust-covered women, children and men have streamed out of the ragged tent encampment in the Syrian village of Baghouz, the Islamic State’s last sliver of land in Syria, since December — and despite that exodus they still keep on coming.

Hideout. A new report indicates that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the notorious one-eyed founder of the Taliban, lived in hiding near a U.S. base in southern Afghanistan until his death, not in Pakistan as U.S. officials believed, the Wall Street Journal reports.  

Killer drones. As the Islamic State’s physical caliphate shrinks to nothing after an almost five-year campaign led by U.S. special operations forces, military insiders say one small unit has killed more of the extremists than any other: the company of Gray Eagle drones in the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Americas

Blackout. At least 15 people have died as a result of a massive electricity outage that has crippled Venezuela, as doctors struggled to assist patients, telecommunications networks were wiped out and the sale of basic goods was paralyzed amid rising political turmoil, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Maduro Coup? Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro thanked members of his country’s armed forces for defeating what he described as an attempted coup against his government. Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guiado held dueling rallies over the weekend, with Guiado pledging to go on a nationwide tour ahead of an upcoming mass protest in Caracas.

Oh, Canada! Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become embroiled in a complex scandal featuring allegations of corruption that may well derail his premiership, Justin Ling writes for Foreign Policy.

Tech/cyber

Triton. E&E News has put together the most extensive reconstruction to date of the 2017 cyberattack on a Saudi Arabian petrochemical plant using the malware known as Triton. The attack struck a joint venture by Saudi Aramco and Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical and American intelligence officials are warning the attack could be a preview of what a cyberattack on Western industrial would look like.

Big blue. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg rolled out a new vision for his gargantuan social media platform that will reorient the company around a focus on privacy and security. The company aims to more effectively integrate end-to-end encryption and ephemeral messaging into its services and to reduce the amount of data it holds. Much of that work is still in early stages, but in a revealing interview with Wired, Zuckerberg said the shift probably won’t require significant changes to the company’s business model.

“It’s not like building a system and making it end-to-end encrypted and now we can’t see the messages is really going to hurt ads that much because of the way we were already thinking about that,” Zuckerberg told Wired. “Keeping metadata around for less time will have some impact, although I’m optimistic that we’ll build systems that can basically deliver most of the value with a fraction of the amount of data.”

The intel angle. Zuckerberg’s purported pivot toward privacy has former intelligence officials worried that changes to the company could inhibit intelligence agencies’ access to company data, Yahoo News reports.

No smoking gun. American intelligence agencies are waging a public campaign warning about the security risks posed by Chinese telecom giant Huawei, but the government is unlikely to produce hard evidence to back up its claims, CyberScoop reports.

“Everybody is anxious for that smoking gun,” Rob Joyce, a senior cybersecurity adviser at NSA, told the outlet. “It is not the case that you’re going to see people bring out and drop that smoking gun on the table.”

Dragonfly. Contrary to previous claims that Google has shut down work on a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market, some employees of the company believe that work may be continuing on the project, the Intercept reports.

0-day. Researchers at Google uncovered two previously unknown vulnerabilities targeting the Google Chrome web browser, the world’s most popular, and Microsoft Windows, CyberScoop reports.

Pew-pew. An anonymous U.S. official told the Washington Times that the United States is beginning to retaliate against Chinese with cyberattacks against military and intelligence targets.

Anti-trust. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat seeking her party’s presidential nomination, announced a proposal last week to break up the major American tech companies, in what amounts to the greatest test yet as to whether the Democratic Party has the appetite for a major fight with Silicon Valley, Slate reports.

Whoops. The cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase said it will be letting go of staff with ties to Hacking Team, the Italian surveillance company, after the exchange acquired a firm with links to the controversial Italian outfit.

Yikes. Stalkers and bounty hunters are impersonating law enforcement officials in order to trick telecommunications companies into turning over sensitive cellular location data, Motherboard reports.

Cybercrime. The FBI commandeered a pedophile’s social media accounts as part of investigation into the online distribution of child pornography, in what Forbes reports may be the first such take-over.  

No visa for you! The Israeli cryptography pioneer Adi Shamir was unable to get a visa to attend last week’s massive RSA (the S stands for “Shamir”) security conference in San Francisco.  

Ghidra! The National Security Agency has made public its in-house reverse engineering tool, a program dubbed “Ghidra.” The program is a decompiler that takes the binary code of computer programs and converts it into human-readable programming language.

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

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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