Tallying the Russian exit; Kurds eye Syrian partition; Taliban gain in Helmand; Skunk Works chief looks ahead; and a bit more.

Russia sent “less than 10” of its aircraft home from Syria in the first 24 hours after Moscow’s surprise partial withdrawal announcement, the Pentagon said Tuesday. This morning, Russia says more of its planes have since departed, including an Il-76 transport plane and an unspecified number of Su-25 attack jets.

The stragglers: As of last fall, Russian forces in Syria included 12 Su-25 “Frogfeet” and 12 Su-24 “Fencer” attack aircraft; and 4 of what were believed to be Su-30 “Flanker” air-to-ground attack aircraft; 15 Mi-17 and Mi-24 attack helicopters; 36 armored personnel carriers; nine tanks; and two air-defense missile systems at the airfield in western Latakia. A Russian official on Tuesday said Moscow could keep two battalions of soldiers, as many as 800 troops, to protect Latakia and the port at Tartus, a bit south.

For what it’s worth: “The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has never been revealed, but U.S. estimates suggest it varies from 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel on the ground,” al-Jazeera reported.

What’s also staying: Russia’s S-400 air defense system: With “a range of up to 400 kilometers (248.55 miles) the anti-aircraft system means Russia can control large swaths of the skies above Syria,” Reuters notes.

Wide-angle view: “Contrary to Obama’s prediction, Russia’s strategy in Syria did work, especially compared to Washington’s failed effort to train moderate opposition,” argues Simon Saradzhyan, of Harvard’s Russia Matters Project, writing in The Boston Globe. Saradzhyan compares Putin’s stated goals in Syria with what he actually achieved; some gains continue to help a Syrian advance near ISIS-held Palmyra. Read it all, here.

However, some 2,000 civilians also died in Moscow’s six-month “terrorist” bombing campaign, The Guardian reports.

The Syrian Kurds say they’re about to declare their own federal region in the north. AP: “Nawaf Khalil of the Democratic Union Party told The Associated Press that his party is not lobbying for an only-Kurdish region but an all-inclusive area that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria. The declaration is expected to be made at the end of a Kurdish conference that is being held Wednesday in the town of Rmeilan in the country’s northern Hassakeh province.”

The view from 30,000 feet: “Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished Hassakeh province, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Syria’s Kurds have dramatically strengthened their hold on northern Syria during the civil war, carving out territory as they battled to drive out Islamic militant fighters allied to the rebellion and declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control.”

Declaring this zone “could be a first step toward creating an autonomous region similar to the one Kurds run across the border in Iraq, where their territory is virtually a separate country. It could also usher in similar demands for federal regions elsewhere in Syria and in effect lead to a partition of the war-shattered country,” AP reports. “However, both the Syrian government and the opposition, at least in theory, reject any form of partitioning of the country.” Read the rest, here.

Keep America’s top military officer out of the chain of command. John Hamre, a former DepSecDef and now president of CSIS, writes: I lived through Goldwater-Nichols. Congress should know why it’s still a bad idea to give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advises the president, that kind of power.” Read on, here.

From Defense One

The dangerous myth of “America must lead.” A world in which the forces of light vie against the forces of darkness, with America charged with ensuring the triumph of good over evil—that isn’t Obama’s world, writes Army-colonel-turned-professor Andrew J. Bacevich. Read on, here.

Skunk Works chief: here’s what America needs to do to keep its airborne advantage. Regular updates to the F-22 and F-35, says Lockheed’s Weiss, plus a deep commitment to chasing the game-changing tech of the future. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber reports, here.

Welcome to the #wmatageddon edition of the D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 2016, Washington, D.C.,’s metro is shut down on 12 hours’ notice to look for dangerous electrical problems. Send your traffic-stuck friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. Got news? Let us know: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.

The Taliban gained more turf in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province this week just as NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, dropped in on Kabul to praise the country’s military, the Washington Post reports from the capital. “The Khanashin district in Helmand fell to the Taliban after insurgents had ‘amassed’ in the area ‘for days,’ a local official said. Police and army personnel abandoned their posts outside government buildings after hours of fighting, another security official in Helmand said.”

Afghan officials called the withdrawal from Khanashin a “tactical retreat” but warned fighting is still ongoing “and the Taliban did not yet control the area,” the Post reports. “Still, the Taliban’s apparent gains in the district — a windswept patch of desert about 100 miles from Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah — comes just weeks after government forces withdrew from two other districts in the province (Musa Qala and Now Zad), effectively ceding control to insurgents.”

Stoltenberg’s not-so-rosy 2016 forecast for Afghanistan: “There is going to be continued fighting and we have to expect that there are going to be new attacks on the government forces.” That, here.

Back stateside, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook took some heat Tuesday for dodging questions over possible claims former Afghanistan war commander Gen. John Campbell cut Defense Secretary Ash Carter out of the loop on Campbell’s escalated airstrike plans for the country. That story, from WaPo’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe, here.

And before we leave Afghanistan, get current on the latest dismal news from the infrastructure front, a la the folks at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. “Of the projects totalling $1.1 billion in Defense Department spending examined by [SIGAR], two-thirds did not meet the requirements of the contract or technical specifications, one-third were structurally unsound or hazardous to the occupants, and a quarter were delayed for months, including one more than two and half years over schedule.” U.S. News has the ugly details, here.

No regrets. That’s what Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson says about the company’s $9 billion purchase of Black Hawk helicopter maker Sikorsky last year. From Reuters: “Hewson said buying the company was ‘absolutely a great opportunity’ and Lockheed remained confident about its long-term prospects, despite the oil-related drop in commercial sales.” More here.

Hewson, speaking at the company’s annual media day in Arlington, Virginia, Tuesday, also touted Lockheed’s work on hypersonic engine technology that could allow aircraft to travel at six times the speed of sound. More on that here.

Bombings in Pakistan and Nigeria remind us of the continued antagonists of the Pakistani Taliban and Boko Haram. An IED killed at least 15 people ferrying government workers to Peshawar this morning, BBC reports. And a dual suicide bombing struck a mosque in Nigeria’s northeast, killing nearly two-dozen. That, here.

America’s Marines may not be ready for another war, Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Why? He says: “executing our defense strategy or responding to an emergent crisis may require more time, more risk, and incur greater costs and casualties” because of “fewer training opportunities [for Marines stateside] with the best equipment deployed with forces overseas. And it would be these undertrained home units that would be called to respond to an unexpected crisis.” Stars & Stripes has more, here.

And finally: The Navy’s Fun Police would like to remind sailors that throwing $5 into an NCAA tournament pool is a no-no. “As service members, we are prohibited from engaging in most gambling activities, which could include a March Madness office pool, while on federal property or onboard naval units,” Lt. Kathy Paradis, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, wrote on an official Navy blog. Stripes reports: “But even in the Navy, such disciplinary action appears to be rare. Jennifer Zeldis, a JAG spokeswoman, said her office is not aware of anyone who has been prosecuted in military court for entering an office pool.” Read on, here.

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