ISIS is retreating; 2 Americans among Brussels dead; F-35’s feel-good tour; Pentagon hiring freeze; and a bit more.

ISIS is sucking wind in Iraq and Syria and “in retreat on multiple fronts,” as the Washington Post’s Liz Sly writes from Beirut. “Nowhere [in the two countries] are they on the attack. They have not embarked on a successful offensive in nearly nine months. Their leaders are dying in U.S. strikes at the rate of one every three days, inhibiting their ability to launch attacks…Front-line commanders no longer speak of a scarily formidable foe but of Islamic State defenses that crumble within days and fighters who flee at the first sign they are under attack.”

Said one Iraqi commander: “They don’t fight. They just send car bombs and then run away. And when we surround them they either surrender or infiltrate themselves among the civilians…Their morale is shaken. We listen to them on their communications devices. Their leaders are begging them to fight, but they answer that it is a lost cause. They refuse to obey orders and run away.”

The optimistic takeaway at this juncture: “U.S. military officials say they believe that after more than 18 months, the military campaign [against ISIS] has found its stride.”

And that’s in part to the U.S. military’s eyes in the sky that monitor ISIS movements and patterns of life: “Any time they try to move, we’re able to find and finish them,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren. “They can’t move, haven’t won any battles for a long time, and they’ve got difficulty leading because we’re hitting their leaders.”

But Russia’s airstrikes have helped pressure the group as well, Sly writes. Despite all this: ISIS still “shows no sign that it is losing cohesion in its core territories.” Read the rest, here.

Semantics alert: American Marines are expanding their “combat role” in Iraq. But a U.S. official told the AP that’s not the best way to describe it—rather, the U.S. is “expanding its support to the Iraqis.”

Regardless of the descriptor, “A senior U.S. official said the Marines fired illumination rounds to help the Iraqi forces locate IS fighters, and also fired artillery rounds in support of the operation, as Iraqi troops took control of several villages on the outskirts of Makhmour, southeast of Mosul” on Thursday. Adds the AP: “The key difference Thursday was that the Marines were not firing artillery to protect Iraqis and U.S. advisers at the base but were helping the Iraqis in an offensive operation against the Islamic State militants.” More, here.  

U.S. jets also hit ISIS positions near the Marines’ location on Thursday, part of the broader campaign that has seen 87,000 coalition sorties—two-thirds of them carried out by American planes from F-15s to F-22s to A-10s to B-1s to drones, Air Force Times reported Thursday. But it’s the B-1s that have dropped the most bombs, constituting nearly 40 percent of the USAF’s dropped bombs on ISIS positions. That bit of accounting, here.

At least two Americans were among those killed in Tuesday’s ISIS-claimed attack in Brussels, State Secretary John Kerry said this morning after arriving to the city for a brief counterterrorism chat with EU and Belgian officials.

Lots of activity in Europe last night after “Belgian authorities held six people for questioning after raids in central Brussels and in the Schaerbeek and Jette neighborhoods of the city, all in connection with the investigation into the Tuesday attacks,” writes The New York Times.

But the big-ticket capture occurred in Paris when “authorities arrested a Frenchman on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot in the ‘advanced stages’ of planning.”

The Wall Street Journal identified the man as “Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old French national born in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie, [who] was convicted of belonging to a group recruiting would-be fighters to go to Syria to join jihadist groups… Mr. Kriket was convicted last July in Belgium along with more than 30 other members of a network of Islamist radicals for terrorist crimes.” More here.

Also on Thursday we learned two of the brothers involved in Tuesday’s attacks—metro-bomber Khalid El Bakraoui and airport-bomber Brahim El Bakraoui—were on a U.S. watch list, Reuters reported.

The head of INTERPOL said Thursday that officials are dealing with a list of some 5,000 possible ISIS operatives who could target Europe, write the analysts at the Soufan Group. “While the statement generated dramatic headlines, the figure is approximately the total number of people from Western Europe who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join extremist causes. This figure has been known for some time” The bottom line: “The manpower needed to investigate, assess, prioritize, and then monitor and disrupt potential threats is overwhelming not just for Belgium, but for much of Western Europe.” Read the rest, here.  

From Defense One

Seeking to boost the F-35 public image, the Air Force is sending the jet out to join the airshow circuit. Program officials are trying to improve popular perceptions of the late, over-budget joint strike fighter. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber reports, here.

Why the military can’t go after Iran for hacking your dam. Seven Iranians have been charged with cyber crimes in a case that reveals the limits of U.S. power. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker explains, here.

It’s time for China to turn nuclear-security pledges into reality. Beijing’s made a good start, but must buckle down before terror groups exploit corruption to devastating effect. The Belfer Center’s Hui Zhang spells it out, here.

The changing logic behind suicide bombings. What was once purely a strategic action has become a tactical move aimed at holding territory. The Atlantic talks to University of Chicago terrorism expert Robert Pape, here.

Welcome to Friday’s D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1863, the first Medal of Honor was awarded to Pvt. Jacob Parrott for actions in “The Great Locomotive Chase.” Help someone capture the D Brief with this link: Got news? Let us know:

$1.6 trillion. That’s the total value of the Pentagon’s 79 procurement programs, according to DoD’s latest Selected Acquisition Report. And there’s good and bad news.

Let’s start with the bad: The Navy is canceling its Remote Minehunting System. The project has been delayed for years and its reliability has been called into question, Reuters reports. And here’s a bit more from USNI News.

Better news: The F-35 is going to cost a bit less than previously thought. The latest Pentagon estimates peg the total project at $379 billion, down $12 billion from last year’s estimates. Also: the Air Force and Navy plan to fly their jets fewer flight hours each year. Instead of flying each plane 300 hours per year, they’re now looking to fly it 250 hours per year. What does that mean? Since the planes are built to last 8,000 hours, they’re now expected to each last about 6 years longer than planned. And what does that mean? The F-35 will be around until the year 2070.

Since the planes will be around longer, the operation and sustainment cost of the F-35 (the annual cost to fly and maintain all of the 2,443 F-35s in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps each year) has gone up to account for six new years by $23 billion. If you hear the F-35 referred to as the “$1 trillion program,” that factors in the cost of the Pentagon developing, buying and flying F-35s over a nearly 70-year period. Estimating operational and sustainment costs are tricky because predicting factors like inflation or the cost of fuel 50-plus years from now is not easy. As Pentagon program mangers like to say, “Do you know what a tank of gas for your car is going to cost you next year, let alone 30 years from now? Didn’t think so.” More here.

More good news: The projected price tag of the Army’s new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle is also way down, $6 billion to be exact. The total project is now expected to cost $24.7 billion. More here.

Also: Lockheed gets big C-130J deal. The Air Force awarded the firm a $1.5 billion contract for 28 C-130Js in various configurations.

ISIS wannabes are being displaced from their relative safe haven in eastern Afghanistan. They’re reportedly fleeing northward along the Pakistan border to Kunar province from locations in Nangarhar. The reason: “an intense campaign by U.S. warplanes and Afghan forces,” Reuters reported.

Get read-on to the latest changing dynamics in Afghanistan-Taliban peace talks, via the AP, here. The skinny there: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia is sending its most advanced air defense system, along with drones, to the Kurile island chain, where Moscow and Tokyo (which calls the chain its “Northern Territories”) have disputed claims.

“Coastal missile systems Bal and Bastion and new generation Eleron 3 drones will be deployed there this year,” Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this morning. This follows news from October that Russia announced it would be building a military base in the Kuriles.

A bit more about that AD system: “The Bastion is a mobile defense system armed with two anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 300 km (188 miles),” Reuters reports. “It has also been deployed in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The Bal anti-ship missile has a similar range.”

The Kurile moves are part of a wider effort to build up Russia’s military from its western flank to the Pacific, AP adds, with a healthy dose of fiscal skepticism considering Russia’s continually tanking economy.

Shoigu said the deployment of NATO’s forces near Russia’s borders has “caused concern,” AP reports. “As part of a response, he said new units in the Western Military District, including two new divisions, will be formed,” including “1,100 new weapons systems, including warplanes, helicopters, tanks and other armored vehicles.” That here.

Ground robots are coming. At least that’s another thing Russia’s military announced in the past 24 hours. It’s unmanned Ural 9 combat ground vehicle is set to “appear” in the Russian army by the end of the year, Moscow said. Check out of video of the contraption, which has nice maneuverability in snowy conditions and can drive through a pile of burning sticks. So maybe that last point isn’t very impressive, but the video makes for fun viewing. Watch it here.

And for what it’s worth, Russia’s largest defense firm, Almaz-Antey (maker of the Buk missile system), says it will need to cut as much as 30 percent of its employees as part of an “optimization” under way. That, here.

And finally: There’s a hiring freeze on for some Pentagon civilian jobs. Ordered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work in a Feb. 23 memo, the freeze went into effect March 20 and affects the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Defense Agencies and Field Activities. Reports Defense News: “The freeze is related to a congressional order to reduce the number of headquarters staff at the Pentagon.” Read on, here.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne