Situation Report
A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Security Brief: The Coming Clash Over America’s Nukes

Trump wants to build more nuclear weapons. Will Congress let him?

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on 5G deployment in the United States on April 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on 5G deployment in the United States on April 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on 5G deployment in the United States on April 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)

Good Monday morning and welcome to Security Brief. 

Good Monday morning and welcome to Security Brief. 

President Donald Trump and Congress are on a collision course over the future of U.S. nuclear weapons. Factions within the Sudanese military vy for power after a military coup against President Omar Bashir. Washington is trying a softer approach to block China’s Huawei from dominating the global 5G market. Why the Taliban’s spring offensive signals the insurgent group believes it has the upper hand.

How many nukes is enough nukes? Trump came into office vowing to expand America’s nuclear arsenal. But the Democratic-controlled House is set to block his efforts, particularly a plan to add new tactical nuclear weapons that could be used in a conventional war.

The clash comes at a pivotal moment for global arms control, writes Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman, as the Trump administration seriously considers dismantling at least one treaty with Russia that has set arms control policy for the past 30 years.

As Russia and China expand their own arsenals, the argument for expansion is that maintaining a strong U.S. deterrent is the best way to prevent nuclear war. But critics say that America’s nukes are already good enough, and the expansion is “unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe.”

The question Congress and the administration must resolve over the coming months is one that has been at the core of arms control debates for decades and has no easy answer: If potential adversaries begin to challenge U.S. dominance in nuclear weapons, is the world safer with an unmatched U.S. deterrent, or without it?

Turmoil in Sudan. The military coup against Sudanese President Omar Bashir has left factions within the Sudanese military vying for power following the resignation of Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf 30 hours after leading the coup against Bashir. Friday’s reshuffle was the latest sign that Sudan’s turmoil was not over, Justin Lynch, Robbie Gramer, and Jefcoate O’Donnell report for FP.

“Nobody’s really agreed who will be in and who will be out,” Susan Stigant, the director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace, told FP. “There’s a risk of escalation of violence between those factions.”

Bullish on Turkey. A new bipartisan U.S. Senate bill would herald a potentially pivotal change to Washington’s approach to the world’s newest hot spot, the Eastern Mediterranean, aiming to parry Russian influence there and threatening to jettison a decades-old security relationship with Turkey, writes FP’s Keith Johnson.

At the heart of the bill is greater U.S. military and diplomatic cooperation with Cyprus and Greece. It would end the three-decade U.S. embargo on Cyprus, a way to both tweak Ankara and offer an alternative to Russian military hardware, and boost military cooperation with both countries.

“For the first time since the 1950s, U.S. policymakers are wondering whether Greece or Turkey will be the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FP.

An emboldened Taliban? The Taliban’s launch of a new spring offensive in Afghanistan despite U.S. peace talks may signal that the insurgent group believes it has the upper hand in its bid to wrest control of the country from the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, writes The Washington Times.

“The name of this year’s offensive, Al-Fath or Victory, indicates that the Taliban believes it will soon prevail in the 18 year long conflict against NATO and Afghan forces,” writes Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Middle East

The day after. With the Islamic State expelled from its caliphate in Syria, the Red Cross has revealed that one of its nurses was abducted by the group in 2013. Louisa Akavi, a 62-year-old nurse from New Zealand, is believed to still be alive, and the Red Cross is going public in the hope that it might generate information about her whereabouts, the New York Times reports.

Though the militant group has been expelled from its territorial holdings, the Islamic State appears to still be able to hold hostages, including the journalist John Cantlie; British officials believe he is still alive.

Odyssey Resolve. With a Libyan warlord advancing on the country’s capital, the Trump administration is paying little attention to the covert war being run there. With names like “Obsidian Lotus” and “Odyssey Resolve,” U.S. Special Operations are running a number of operations in Libya, but that military effort is getting little attention from the White House and lacks a coherent strategy, Yahoo News reports.

Deal of the century. The Middle East peace plan being cobbled together by White House adviser Jared Kushner is expected to offer improvements in the lives of Palestinians but won’t offer them an independent state, the Washington Post reports. The long-awaited plan is expected to be rolled out later this spring or early summer.

The 5G Race

Trump weighs in. The Trump administration announced a major push to speed the development of 5G telecommunications networks in the United States, unveiling plans to auction a major block of high-frequency spectrum, the Washington Post reports.

The Federal Communications Commission also said it would create a $20 billion fund to spur investments in rural broadband.

“No matter where you are, you will have access very quickly to 5G, and it’s going to be a different life,” Trump said Friday. “I don’t know if it’s going to be better—maybe you’re happy right now—but I’m going to say, technologically, it won’t even be close.”

The Huawei campaign. Having failed to pressure its allies to ban Huawei outright from next-generation telecommunications networks, Washington appears to be trying a softer approach in its campaign to prevent the Chinese electronics firm from dominating the market for 5G equipment, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

The strategy, on display in a Wednesday conference call conducted by the U.S. diplomat leading Washington’s anti-Huawei campaign, Robert Strayer, featured something the allies in question, including Germany and France, are not accustomed to getting from the Trump administration: praise.

“At this point we’re looking for governments to adopt security standards like we’re seeing in Germany,” Strayer told the mostly European reporters on the call.

Longread. The Los Angeles Times profiles Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and considers how the People’s Liberation Army veteran “could have single-handedly turned his tiny start-up into a technology-driven colossus.”


Spygate. Attorney General William Barr’s claims that “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign organization during the 2016 election has set off a firestorm, “with those who have defended the FBI complaining that the attorney general had legitimized an outlandish conspiracy theory — while those critical of the Russia probe have embraced his remarks as vindication of their cause,” the Washington Post reports.

Movers and shakers. Trump formalized his picks for Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s top military advisors, this week, tapping U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Milley (a choice he announced months in advance) and U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, for the top two positions.

Observers lauded the choice, saying Milley, a Green Beret known for his blunt style, and Hyten, who has a background in space and nuclear programs, will complement each other. The pick of Hyten, who served as the head of Air Force Space Command, also signals the growing importance of the space domain, as Trump seeks to stand up a Space Force.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is getting a new leader. Trump last week tapped Adm. Bill Moran, a naval aviator and Naval Academy grad, to replace Adm. John Richardson as the next Chief of Naval Operations.

The influence beat. The indictment of President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel, Gregory Craig, on charges of making false statements to the Justice Department, landed like a bombshell in the Washington legal community, the Wall Street Journal reports. Craig has long been one of Washington’s most influential, well-connected lawyers, but has suffered a remarkable fall from grace thanks to his involvement in a lobbying campaign on behalf of the Ukrainian government that was organized by Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.

China & the U.S.

Counterintel. The FBI is cracking down on Chinese academics who regularly visit the United States as part of a crackdown on Chinese espionage activities in the United States. “As many as 30 Chinese professors in the social sciences, heads of academic institutes, and experts who help explain government policies have had their visas to the United States canceled in the past year, or put on administrative review, according to Chinese academics and their American counterparts,” the New York Times reports.

AI watch. Researchers at Microsoft have collaborated with researchers with ties to the Chinese military on artificial intelligence projects, the Financial Times reports.

“Three papers, published between March and November last year, were co-written by academics at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing and researchers with affiliations to China’s National University of Defense Technology, which is controlled by China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission,” according to the paper.

China sanctions? Human rights activists were told by the Trump administration to expect Washington to level sanctions against Beijing for its treatment of Sinjiang’s Uighur minority. But amid tense trade talks between the United States and China those sanctions are nowhere to be seen, and activists believe they have been squelched to ease resolution of the trade talks between the two countries, FP’s Amy MacKinnon reports.

Trade talks. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said over the weekend that he believes U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators are nearing the “final round” of negotiations and that they are close to what U.S. officials say will be a historic agreement between the two countries.


North Korea. Having failed last week to secure concessions from President Donald Trump on sanctions relief for North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Monday that he hoped to meet once again with his North Korean counterpart.

With North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pushing ahead with economic reform, Moon had hoped to secure Trump’s support at a White House summit last week for a relaxation of sanctions. But Trump refused, saying he was open to “smaller” deals but that “fair” sanctions would remain in place.

Meanwhile in North Korea, Kim said in a speech that the American approach during the failed Hanoi summit “raised strong questions about” about “whether the U.S. is even really trying to improve the… relationship,” according to Chosun Ilbo.

Kim’s remarks occurred during the annual meeting of his country’s rubber-stamp parliament, which saw yet another leadership shuffle that appears to have further consolidated power around Kim, the Japan Times reports.

Vlad. Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Financial Times reports. Russia has been mostly cut out of the ongoing diplomatic opening with the North, but the breakdown in talks and continuing sanctions provide an opening for the Kremlin.

Sanctions evasion. It’s not every day a reporter gets invited on board a U.S. destroyer to study an American intelligence operation, but the Navy lifted its normal veil of secrecy for the Wall Street Journal, inviting a reporter on board for a few days to observe how the service is tracking North Korean sanctions evasion.

Hacks. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are warning of new North Korean malware, CyberScoop reports.

F-35. Japanese and American naval forces continue to search for a Japanese F-35 that crashed off the country’s coast last week, the Drive reports.

South China Sea. Chinese media claim the country has completed its first deep-water well in the South China Sea, the first completed using a Chinese-built drilling rig.

Cyber & Technology

Malwarepalooza. The computer security community has been in Singapore in recent days for Kaspersky Security’s annual conference, and the gathering has yielded fascinating new research on sophisticated hacking campaigns.

First up, researchers at Chronicle, the cybersecurity subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, have discovered a new version of the Flame malware, a pioneering piece of spy software first discovered in 2012, Motherboard reports.

In an eye-opening discovery, researchers at Kaspersky have uncovered what appears to be a new state-backed hacking group operating a highly sophisticated suite of spy tools that was discovered on the computer systems of an unnamed Central Asian country’s embassy, Wired reports.  

Researchers have recently documented spyware hiding in plain sight on Google’s app store, and they have now discovered the same code also targeting Apple iOS users, ThreatPost reports.

AI for racism. The Chinese government has pioneered a system using artificial intelligence facial recognition technology to track the country’s Uighur minority. “The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review,” the New York Times reports.

First flight. A giant space launch aircraft developed by Stratolaunch carried out its maiden flight over the weekend. With a 385-foot wingspan, the Roc aircraft is the largest ever and will carry rocket payloads, the Drive reports.

Trisis. The infamous hackers behind the malware that crippled a Saudi petrochemical plant are back, security company FireEye is warning. “The announcement of a second intrusion reinforces warnings from industrial cybersecurity experts that the hacking group has gone after additional targets since the dangerous Trisis malware was deployed on a Saudi petrochemical plant in the summer of 2017,” CyberScoop reports.

Silk Road 2. A British court convicted the technologist and privacy activist Thomas White for running the dark web marketplace Silk Road 2, Motherboard reports. White had become a well-known figure in the security world after adopting the moniker “The Cthulhu,” which he used to tweet about security issues.

Breach. A hacker was able to gain access to the contents of some Microsoft users’ email accounts, Motherboard reports.

Doxxed. A hacking group published a large tranche of personal information belonging to federal law enforcement officers, TechCrunch reports.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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

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