Security Brief

Pensacola Shooting Casts Shadow Over U.S.-Saudi Relations

After attack on base, the U.S. defense secretary directs a review of vetting procedures for foreign nationals.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, on Dec. 7.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, on Dec. 7.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs a review of base security after a deadly shooting at a naval base in Florida, North Korea conducts a significant weapons test, and Russia is blamed for downing a U.S. drone in Libya.

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Pentagon Chief Directs Security Review

Friday’s deadly shooting by a Saudi Air Force student attending pilot training at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, loomed large over the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, where heavy hitters in the national security community gathered over the weekend. U.S. officials on Sunday said the incident, which killed three sailors, appears to be a terror attack.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other officials played down the effects of the attack on U.S.-Saudi ties. But in an interview at the forum, Esper said he directed a review of base security and the department’s vetting procedures for the thousands of foreign nationals who come to the United States each year for military training.

Long-standing program. The shooter was part of a long-standing training program for the Saudi Air Force, which operates U.S. F-15 fighter jets. He was one of more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries that currently undergoing military training in the United States. The programs are critical for U.S. partnerships across the globe, said U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein, providing an “asymmetric advantage” for U.S. allies that adversaries do not enjoy.

Warning signs. Even as defense officials defended the training programs, the New York Times reported Sunday that the gunman had filed a formal complaint earlier this year against one of his instructors, highlighting the potential for tension. The gunman was reportedly upset after the instructor gave him a derogatory nickname.

Testing ties. The Pensacola shooting tests the U.S.-Saudi relationship as the White House continues to send military forces to Saudi Arabia to defend Persian Gulf allies from Iranian threats. On Saturday, Esper refuted a Wall Street Journal report that the administration is weighing sending an additional 14,000 U.S. troops to the region.

But his comments added to the confusion around the report, coming just two days after another top civilian appeared to admit the Pentagon was considering the deployment. Asked whether the shooting makes him hesitate to send additional U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, Esper said, “No, not at all.”

What We’re Watching 

The Afghanistan papers. The U.S. government has misled the American public on progress in the war in Afghanistan for years, according to over 2,000 pages of documents obtained by the Washington Post. The documents include over 400 interviews from U.S. officials and insiders from the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, revealing how senior officials hid evidence that the 18-year war was unwinnable and lauded U.S. efforts in Afghanistan in statements they knew were false.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who was a White House envoy for Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and a former ambassador to NATO. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking,” he said.

What is North Korea planning? North Korea claimed on Sunday that it conducted a “very important test” at a rocket launch site, paving the way for Pyongyang to launch a satellite or an intercontinental ballistic missile soon. It is the latest in a series of provocative gestures from North Korea, showing how badly its relations with the United States have deteriorated since the summit in Singapore in 2018.

Last week, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song issued an ominous warning to the United States, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un followed those comments with a white horse ride up the sacred Mount Paektua sign that a major policy decision could be forthcoming.

Attempts at peace in Ukraine. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany are meeting in Paris today to try to find a way to end the five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. A major breakthrough is unlikely, but the summit is a major test for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, FP’s Amy Mackinnon, Robbie Gramer, and Reid Standish report.

Zelensky is untested diplomatically and faces growing pressure at home not to concede any ground to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The central aim of the summit is to revive the 2015 Minsk accord, an earlier attempt at peace that outlined greater autonomy for rebel-held regions in exchange for an end to the fighting.

Did Russia down a U.S. drone in Libya? The United States believes that an unarmed U.S. drone shot down over the Libyan capital of Tripoli last month was downed by Russian air defenses. Discussing the incident, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Christopher Karns said that either Russian private military contractors or Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces were operating air defenses at the time the drone was lost on Nov. 21. Karns said the United States believed the aircraft was mistaken for an opposition drone. The event comes as Moscow actively boosts its military presence in Libya.

In FP, Frederic Wehrey writes that Russia has been sending private defense contractors and more advanced technology to support Haftar against the internationally recognized government.

Foreign Policy Recommends

A small but significant border. The border dividing Russia and Norway is a small: a 121-mile line in the northern reaches of Europe. But it is not without geopolitical importance, Breaking Defense reports. Norwegian defenses on the border guard against one of the most militarized regions in Russia. There, Norway is playing an outsize role in NATO’s defense, securing the so-called High North—where Moscow could overrun the border to easily deploy forces into the North Atlantic.

Quote of the Week

“If big tech is going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble. That just can’t happen.”

—Amazon founder Jeff Bezos speaking at the Reagan Forum, on some Silicon Valley giants’ reluctance to work with the Pentagon 

Odds and Ends

Space Force cleared for launch? U.S. lawmakers hinted on Saturday that they had reached an agreement on creating President Donald Trump’s Space Force as a new branch of the armed services. The proposal is expected to be included in the House and Senate compromise of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which will likely be filed today, Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum.

The House and Senate each proposed their own versions of the Space Force,  and conferees had clashed over the details of the new service, Defense One reports.

That’s it for today. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to

Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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