Security Brief

Security Brief: Bolton’s Warning to Iran

White House says it will deploy carrier strike group and bomber task force to counter Tehran.

MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the "Dusty Dogs" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, attached to Carrier Strike Group 12 and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, are recalled to Naval Station Norfolk on September 15, 2018. (Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the "Dusty Dogs" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7, attached to Carrier Strike Group 12 and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, are recalled to Naval Station Norfolk on September 15, 2018. (Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Good Monday morning and welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. Send your tips, comments, and questions to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

What’s on tap today: the White House is sending an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East in response to Iranian threats, the Pentagon likens China’s detention of more than 1 million Chinese Muslims to concentration camps, and Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer travels to the slowly thawing Arctic to report on growing threats there.

Top News

Saber rattling. The White House announced late Sunday that it would send the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the Middle East as “a clear and unmistakable message” to Iran. Deploying these forces to the region is not new or unusual. But the language in the statement, from John Bolton, the national security adviser, is provocative.

The move is “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” and is intended to send a message that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said.

Is this just more saber rattling by President Donald Trump’s most outspoken Iran hawk? Possibly. The Abraham Lincoln’s movement is not a surprise: the ship departed the East Coast on April 1 for a regularly scheduled deployment that would take it around the globe, and has recently been operating close by in the Mediterranean Sea.

The bomber deployment, too, is not unexpected. The U.S. Air Force regularly rotates bombers in and out of the Middle East. B-1s from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas returned home in March, about two weeks before U.S.-backed fighters declared victory over the Islamic State militant group.

Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked by reporters about Bolton’s statement, admitted: “It’s something we’ve been working on for a little while.”

Yet the move is the latest in a series of escalations by the U.S. and Iran. Last month, the Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Then on Tuesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared all American troops in the Middle East terrorists. And on Thursday, the administration allowed oil purchase waivers for Iran to expire, an effort to cut off revenue from Tehran’s oil exports.

Trade war. Trump threatened on Sunday to increase tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods in order to force additional concessions in the ongoing trade dispute. The warning appears to be a coordinated part of a coordinated economic and military pressure campaign, coming just days after the Pentagon released a new report citing Beijing’s “tremendous” military buildup, particularly ballistic and cruise missiles, and global activity.

The Pentagon has released reports on China for years, but they have taken on new emphasis as the Defense Department reorients to the rise of “great power competition,” writes the Washington Post. This time, notably, the report cites China’s mass detention of more than 1 million minority Muslim Uigher people in its Xinjiang region, which a senior DOD official on Friday likened to “concentration camps.”

But as Trump’s negotiators chase a deal with Beijing, they are also dropping key demands from their negotiating position. American negotiators are no longer pushing Beijing to accept language requiring it to halt its campaign of intellectual property theft in cyberspace, the Financial Times reports.

The newly aggressive line from Washington has apparently taken Chinese negotiators by surprise, and they are considering pulling out from trade talks scheduled to resume in Washington on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reports.

What We’re Watching

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Flare up. Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militant groups traded fire across the Gaza border over the weekend in intense fighting that left at least 25 Palestinians and four Israelis dead. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire early Monday, but the fighting comes amid efforts by the Hamas militant group and Israel to reach an agreement on easing restrictions on Gaza. Israeli armed forces accused the militant group Islamic Jihad of kicking off the fighting.  

Bombing hackers. The Israeli military said it responded to cyberattacks by operatives working on behalf of Hamas by bombing the building out of which they worked, ZDNet reports. The bombing is at least the second time that armed forces have acknowledged responding to cyberattacks with physical force after the U.S. military said it killed the Islamic State hacker Junaid Hussein in 2015.

Testing, testing. North Korea test-fired what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile over the weekend in what appears to be a reflection of Pyongyang’s frustration at the stalled diplomatic opening with the United States. American officials downplayed the test, which involved a short-range weapon whose firing does not contravene the North’s pledge not to test long-range weaponry, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisting on Sunday that American negotiators “want to get back to the table.”

Sea-Air-Space kicks off. The Navy League kicked off Monday its annual Sea-Air-Space conference, the largest maritime exposition in the United States. The event at National Harbor in Maryland attracts the Navy’s top brass every year, including the Navy Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations, as well as key industry players. On tap this year: discussions on the Indo-Pacific, the Arctic, and space, “the final frontier.”

Getting frosty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to deliver a speech Monday on the U.S. presence in the Arctic, with an emphasis on China and Russia’s growing presence there and the implications for American security, Politico reports. “Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” Pompeo will ask in his remarks.

Warm enough to fight, cold enough to die. After two decades of fighting in the desert,, Canada’s military is shifting attention back to its own backyard. FP traveled to Canada’s remote high Arctic, where soldiers are learning how to train and survive in the frozen (but slowly thawing) north. As the ice recedes, commercial activity in the Arctic is booming, while Russia and China have their own geopolitical designs in the region. Read the full story here.

Counteroffer. A Russian defense industry executive said his company was prepared to sell Turkey Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighter jet amid an ongoing dispute between Washington and Ankara over access to the F-35 fighter jet as Ankara seeks to buy Russian air-defense systems, Hurriyet reports.  

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan doubled down on Washington’s position that the U.S. will not allow the transfer of F-35s to Turkish soil if Ankara buys the S-400 defense system. American lawmakers are also digging in on the issue, with two key lawmakers introducing legislation last week to prevent Turkey from acquiring the F-35 if it also buys the S-400 missile.

Despite the dispute, Shanahan does not expect Turkey to retaliate by restricting access to Incirlik air base, which is a key hub for US operations in the Middle East. “They are our strategic partner,” he said.

Incursion. Turkish armed forces launched a cross-border offensive into Syria targeting Kurdish militants, leaving at least 28 dead, Bloomberg reports.

Idlib. Russian and Syrian forces stepped up their bombardment of rebel-held Idlib province over the weekend, carrying out airstrikes and firing artillery. The fighting is the most intense since a September cease-fire and has left dozens dead, Al Jazeera reports. At least four medical facilities have been bombed.

Pew pew! The Air Force said it had taken a step forward in its efforts to develop a laser-based missile defense system after a test platform successfully shot down multiple air-launched missiles, the Drive reports.  

Murder, she wrote. A Vietnamese woman accused of participating in the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport was released from prison, the AP reports. Doan Thi Huong was the last suspect in custody in the case and said that she thought she was participating in a television prank when she smeared VX gas on Kim Jong Nam.  

Interview

Tipping point. Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman chatted with retired Adm. James Stavridis, who led U.S. Southern Command from 2006 to 2009, about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, even as the Trump administration weighed possible military options to respond to the violence there Despite opposition leader Juan Guaido’s failure to foment a military uprising against embattled President Nicolas Maduro, Stavridis said it’s only a matter of time before Maduro’s regime falls.

Washington

Veto politics. The U.S. Senate failed to override President Donald Trump’s veto of a measure that would have ended the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. In a 53-45 vote, seven Republicans broke ranks with their party and voted to overturn the veto.

A peace deal? White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner continues to insist that he will eventually roll out a plan to broker peace between Israel and Palestine, telling a Washington audience last week that it will be “more of an in-depth operational document that shows what we think is possible, how people can live together, how security can work, how interaction can work, and really, how you try to form the outline of what a brighter future can be.”

Unmaskings. The National Security Agency revealed the identity of nearly 17,000 Americans to other branches of the U.S. government last year, a massive increase in the number of Americans whose identities were unmasked after data about them was collected under foreign-intelligence statutes, the Wall Street Journal reports. Intelligence officials attributed the surge to a stepped up effort to determine the targets of cyberattacks.

Exclusive

War crimes. Some 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, a reitred U.N. official is trying to breathe new life into an attempt to bring to justice a former U.N. employee accused of overseeing the murder of 32 people, including three U.N. workers, during the 1994 mass killing, Colum Lynch reports.

Another Pentagon vacancy. Robert Daigle, the director of the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, departs this month, leaving yet another top position unfilled, Lara Seligman writes for FP.  In that position, Daigle leads an independent analysis group that helps inform the secretary’s long-term decisions on the Pentagon’s $700 billion annual budget.

Tech & cyber

The supply chain. A Chinese-language hacking group has carried out a spree of supply chain hacks, infiltrating the software update mechanisms of a wide variety of companies to carry out highly targeted espionage operations, Wired reports.

5G. An international meeting of cybersecurity officials in Prague called for a cooperative approach to ensuring the security of next-generation telecommunications networks, the AP reports.

Hackers. The proliferation of espionage software is allowing even breakaway republics to carry out cyberintelligence operations, as is evidenced in Ukraine, where hackers working on behalf of the Luhansk People’s Republic are targeting the government in Kiev, Elias Groll reports.

The fort. Newly released documents shed new light on the nature of the relationship between the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, which are co-located at Ft. Meade and share commanders.

Venezuela. As the Maduro regime stifled an attempted military uprising last week, the government showed off its remarkably nimble internet censorship regime, which throttled access to key platforms just as opposition leaders took to the airwaves, FP’s Elias Groll writes.

Weird hair. The Marine Corps is standing up a dedicated cyber unit, and the service is relaxing some of its famously strict requirements and will even embrace individuals with “purple hair,”  Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller told a Washington audience last week.

Quote of the week

“The era of untrammeled U.S. military superiority is over,” Elbridge Colby, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in 2017-2018, writes in the spring 2019 issue of FP.

That’s it for today. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. We love to hear from you, so get in touch: securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

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

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