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.

Britain’s Hard-Power Ambitions Face Soft-Power Headwinds

Aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s role in the world faces changing tides.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
An aircraft carrier is pictured in water, with the NYC skyline in the background.
An aircraft carrier is pictured in water, with the NYC skyline in the background.
Britain’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York City on Oct. 19, 2018. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here for another edition of your favorite weekly newsletter—we hope…

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: reporting on Britain’s hard power aboard the crown jewel of its navy, Russia moving forces from the Baltics to feed its war in Ukraine, and North Korea launching more short-range missiles.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here for another edition of your favorite weekly newsletter—we hope…

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: reporting on Britain’s hard power aboard the crown jewel of its navy, Russia moving forces from the Baltics to feed its war in Ukraine, and North Korea launching more short-range missiles.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Europe’s Naval Superpower Faces Choppy Waters Ahead

ABOARD THE HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH IN NEW YORK—A British tugboat ferrying a gaggle of suited-up defense officials and contractors was making its way from Battery Park toward the Statue of Liberty. SitRep was in tow. We were headed down the Hudson River straight toward the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the 932-foot-long flagship of the British Royal Navy—noticeably trimmer than her American counterparts—which has taken a break from launching fighter jets this week to drop anchor in the Big Apple for a few days to host Britain’s biggest annual defense conference.

Most of the British and European defense officials in attendance were more used to pre-pandemic think tank conference rooms, a far cry from the rough life of a sailor aboard a ship. As our tugboat made its way toward the diesel-electric carrier, it caught a sizable wave, sending the passengers rocking up and down. “This wasn’t in the brochure,” said one conference-goer.

The backdrop felt like a metaphor of what’s to come for Britain’s military in the 21st century: the slight Queen Elizabeth—named for the 16th-century monarch—trying to punch its weight under the shadow of some of America’s largest skyscrapers. Crewmembers aboard the ship thought of it almost as a reassurance mission.

“You know, at one end, my strategic effect is launching a full ship of F-35s, but on the other end, the soft-power end, hosting an event such as this has no less, necessarily, a strategic effect,” Capt. Ian Feasey, commander of the Queen Elizabeth, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “With the 900 ship’s company I’ve got, they really understand the ability to professionalize delivery of soft power is equally applicable to the professional, First World navy delivery of hard power.”

And it might be a good time for a reassurance mission. The United Kingdom, embroiled in political turmoil at home, is still trying to showcase itself as a hard-power leader in Europe, particularly as London and its allies face down the gravest threat to Europe’s security since World War II with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Queen Elizabeth’s port call in New York came amid a backdrop of more grim news out of Russia, including a mass mobilization of conscripts and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats about deploying his country’s nuclear weapons.

The rough landing, with the tugboat knocking against the dock, followed by the din of dress shoes clopping up the wet gangway also felt like a metaphor for the present, even though the carrier’s massive metal frame served almost as a Faraday cage cutting off conference-goers from Wi-Fi—and the news.

On Monday, the British pound fell to historic lows against the U.S. dollar after Britain’s new prime minister—Liz Truss, who has been in office for only three weeks—announced massive tax cuts and new borrowing that sent bond markets cratering.

Reporters who tried to dig into officials over a lunch of haddock and beans doled out by British sailors came up short, but the country’s economic hemorrhaging loomed over the affair, including over British Trade Minister Kemi Badenoch’s keynote speech at the conference, which trumpeted the role of Britain as a trade power. (Whether anyone was buying it remains to be seen.)

Truss, if she can survive the economic headwinds (a big if), hopes to embark on a more muscular defense agenda that will please hawks in Whitehall more than her predecessor, Boris Johnson. Truss hopes to double Britain’s annual military spending by 2030, as Britain looks to a future of launching sixth-generation fighters, souped-up drones, and hypersonic missiles off the Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck, possibly with the help of technology-sharing deals like the so-called AUKUS alliance Britain has with the United States and Australia.

But amid the waves and economic headwinds and as officials and guests speculated whether Russia was responsible for explosions on the NordStream pipelines, military officials tried to make the case that they remained a reliable U.S. partner. “It’s this profusion of systems and technology and the ability to fuse them that I think is becoming quite stark,” Adm. Tony Radakin, chief of the British defense staff, told reporters.


Let’s Get Personnel

Rep. David Cicilline has been elected chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism by his Democratic counterparts.

Defense One’s senior Defense Department correspondent, Tara Copp, is joining The Associated Press as its newest Pentagon correspondent. We at SitRep look forward to following her excellent defense coverage in her new home.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tapped Monica Medina to be the new U.S. special envoy for biodiversity and water resources.

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday advanced the nomination of Radha Plumb to be the next deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

Elizabeth Phu has started a new post at the Pentagon as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ top foreign-policy advisor, Matt Duss, is leaving Capitol Hill after more than five years with the progressive senator to work at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Welcome gift. Hours before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast as something of a not-so-welcome gift to Harris and a grim reminder that Pyongyang keeps plugging away at its nuclear program.

The charm (and checkbook) offensive. U.S. President Joe Biden’s team convened leaders from Pacific Island nations in Washington this week to talk shop on pressing climate change issues and to try to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

This is after a belated, scrambled course correction from ignoring the region, caused by the Solomon Islands signing a security pact with China this year. Washington pledged $210 million to the region to counteract Chinese influence, but (as bad news for the Biden administration) the Solomon Islands rebuffed U.S. plans to sign a joint declaration with other countries at the summit this week.

Empty hornet nests. It’s no secret that Russia’s war in Ukraine isn’t exactly going to plan for Putin. But the Kremlin’s efforts to plug the gaps in its steep battlefield losses have also forced it to undertake a mass demobilization on its western frontiers, as we reported this week.

An estimated 80 percent of Russia’s ground forces facing the Baltic region, southern Finland, and in Russia’s Kaliningrad have been redirected to Ukraine, European defense officials told FP. Russia is even stripping sailors from its Baltic Fleet to try to fill its troop shortage, several officials said. It’s more bad news for Moscow amid a fumbled and chaotic conscription campaign.

Between Iraq and a hard place. The U.S. military scrambled an F-15 fighter jet to shoot down an Iranian drone that posed a possible threat to its forces in northern Iraq, CNN reported. The attack came as Iran launched deadly missile attacks against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, after Tehran accused the groups of supporting massive anti-government protests sparked by Iranian police murdering Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini.


Snapshot 

A soldier walks near a destroyed tank.
A soldier walks near a destroyed tank.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a destroyed Russian tank on the front line with Russian troops in Donetsk region on Sept. 28.Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images


What We’re Reading

The future of the GOP. This deep-dive profile by FP’s Amy Mackinnon of Elise Stefanik, the upstart congresswoman who morphed from a moderate into a full-fledged Trumpist Republican, provides a perfect window into the future of the Republican Party.


Put On Your Radar

Friday, Sept. 30: Blinken and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly are scheduled to meet.

Friday, Sept. 30: European Union energy ministers will hold an extraordinary meeting on spiking energy prices and suspected sabotage attacks on the Nord Stream I and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

Sunday, Oct. 2: Brazil’s general elections are scheduled to begin.


Quote of the Week

“Pakistan originally played a bridge between China and the United States, resulting in diplomatic relations between the two countries. And right now, particularly when we’re drowning in floods, I don’t want to play any part in exacerbating any tensions or being a geopolitical football.” —Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari weighs in on U.S.-China tensions in an interview with Foreign Policy.


FP’s Most Read This Week

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now by Tatiana Stanovaya

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem by Stephen M. Walt

Russia Is Sending Its Ethnic Minorities to the Meat Grinder by Amy Mackinnon 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Nature is healing. The Norwegian military and U.S. Air Force finally rescued a stranded Osprey from a remote Norwegian island nature preserve, according to Task and Purpose. To be clear, this is an Osprey of the Bell Boeing V-22 variety, not the bird variety.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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