The U.S. military’s civilian and uniformed leaders are continuing their trips abroad today to both warn and reassure allies. The warning came in the form of an ultimatum from Defense Secretary James Mattis at NATO on Wednesday: “I owe it to you all to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms,” Mattis told defense ministers in a closed-door meeting. “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.”
Going further, he announced, “No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values. Americans cannot care more for your children’s security than you do. Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened.”
Putting the threat in perspective: “We’ve heard some version of this for years, if not decades,” Defense One’s Kevin Baron writes. “In his final trip to NATO in 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates really let ’em have it amid fears that NATO would stop spending on or sending troops to Afghanistan. Before the Chicago summit in 2012, I wrote about the worry over NATO’s ‘paper-mache’ commitments to Afghanistan. Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ash Carter have since gone to Brussels and told the rest of NATO they need to increase defense spending. Here’s Obama, Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry pushing NATO in 2014 to open their arsenals and pocketbooks after Russia invaded Ukraine.”
The real concern, writes Baron, “is that NATO’s effectiveness is being measured too much by its budget balance sheets…If all that this is about is defense spending, then Trump and Mattis have a tough fight ahead. They aren’t fighting internal Pentagon bean-counters and planners, or a single NATO budget office or NATO leader. They’re fighting 27 parliaments and the entirety of European electorate…If NATO countries call Trump’s bluff, then what? The U.S. still will honor Article 5, Trump already has said. Anything short of that would mean the U.S. would pull out of NATO with less troops, funding, intelligence sharing, or some other capability. Those options only seem to weaken European security. And that weakens American security.” Read the rest, here.
Meantime, Germany has signed agreements “to buy eight Airbus A330 transport planes along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg if Norway and Belgium also sign up,” AP reports from Brussels. As well, “Germany and Norway plan to buy six submarines together and replace their aging missile systems. Berlin will also work together with France to set up a smaller air transport unit aimed at supporting special operations and for helping German nationals in trouble abroad.”
One more thing from Mattis, regarding Russia: “While the United States and the Alliance seek to engage Russia, we must at the same time defend ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to international law. Just as we did in the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States remains willing to keep open political channels of cooperation and de-escalate tensions. We must remain open to opportunities to restore a cooperative relationship with Moscow, while being realistic in our expectations and ensuring our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength.”
The Russians didn’t like that last line one bit, AP reports this morning from Moscow, where Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu “lambasted Mattis for his remarks, saying that ‘attempts to build a dialogue with Russia from a position of strength are futile.’ Shoigu said Moscow would seek [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph] Dunford’s explanation at the meeting in Baku later on Thursday.”
About that meeting in Azerbaijan: Dunford is scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart for the first time since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Washington Post writes. “Dunford will hold talks with Valeriy Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, in Baku, Azerbaijian, on Thursday, Dunford’s office said in a statement. There has only been a handful of phone calls between Pentagon leaders and their Russian counterparts since the Ukraine crisis erupted, and no face-to-face meetings, defense officials said.”
The stated purpose of the talks: to address “the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises,” according to Dunford’s office. However, the Post adds, “It’s not yet clear whether the talks in Baku signal the beginning of a rapprochement with Russia in keeping with Trump’s friendlier outlook toward Moscow, or whether they foreshadow an expansion of the tightly constrained interactions the U.S. military has had with Moscow since 2014.” More here or from Politico, here.
ICYMI: this 2015 piece by retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack remains relevant: “It’s High Time for US, Russian Militaries to Start Meeting Again.”
From Defense One
Trump’s Empty ‘Ultimatum’ to NATO // Kevin Baron: Defense Secretary Mattis just called for Europe to increase defense spending or else…what exactly?
Charted: Here’s How the Cost of Each Version of the F-35 is Changing // Marcus Weisgerber and Caroline Houck: The per-plane cost for the Navy and Marine Corps variants both rose before falling.
Take Off the Pentagon’s Gloves in the ISIS War? Not So Fast // CIVIC’s Daniel R. Mahanty: Policies intended to reduce civilian harm didn’t arise out of elite Washington think tanks or academia; they arose from the military’s own lessons learned.
It’s About to Cost a Lot More Money to Launch a Nuclear Bomb // Marcus Weisgerber: New estimates predict the Pentagon’s first new nuclear bombers, missiles, and subs in decades will be more expensive than thought.
One Nuclear Step to Settle an Unsettled Age // Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon: The single most symbolic and practical move that states possessing nuclear weapons could make would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Welcome to Thursday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1960, USS Triton sets sail on the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
After Baku, Dunford will drop by Turkey on Friday to discuss the ISIS war with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, AP reports this morning from remarks Isik made in Brussels Wednesday. In particular, the two are expected to discuss “a possible joint operation to recapture the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.”
It may be wishful thinking and maybe not, but Isik said his impression from talking to U.S. officials is that “the new U.S. administration does not intend to use Syrian Kurdish forces to retake Raqqa.”
Indeed, Isik warned Mattis in Brussels against just this tactic: “If we want the Raqqa operation to be successful, then it should be carried out with Arab forces in the region and not the YPG,” Isik said.
He went on to push Mattis and Trump administration to make a decision quickly, saying, “The new U.S. administration has a different approach to the issue. They are not insisting anymore that the operation should definitely be carried out with the YPG. They haven’t yet made up their minds.”
And that would be a significant change from plans the Pentagon has teased over the last few months, especially as the nearly 30,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces—two-thirds of which are Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters—began their Euphrates Wrath operation in late 2016 to isolate Raqqa. Reuters has more on the underlying dynamics, here.
Or, if you want to take a deep-dive into how best to reconcile U.S. and Turkish interests in northern Syria, Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council penned a backgrounder for the Council on Foreign Relations, here.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Turkish- and Russian-brokered ceasefire is failing the south “as rebel forces launch their largest offensive in the area in more than a year,” WaPo reported. “In an unusual development for Syria’s knotty conflict, the rebel offensive in Daraa appeared to have been launched without international support. The fighters began pushing through the southwestern district of Manshiyah on Sunday, detonating car bombs and at least one powerful tunnel bomb…Monitors, activists and an aid group said fighting between opposition and pro-government forces raged for a fourth day Wednesday in the southern city of Daraa, pushing the number of dead and wounded past 60.” More here.
The Pentagon floated the possibility of conventional ground troops in Syria, CNN reported Wednesday. The key words to the story so far: it is “considering recommending” more troops for the offensive on Raqqa, according to CNN’s Barbara Starr. The option stems from President Trump’s order to come up with a plan within 30 days of taking office to quickly defeat ISIS, and it also includes “increased cooperation with the Russians and the arming of Kurdish groups in northern Syria supported by the US — at the risk of angering Turkey.”
But back to the U.S. troops option: “US officials are characterizing the concept of deploying ground troops as a point of discussion, stopping short of saying it’s a formal proposal. What their exact mission would be is not yet clear, but one goal of their their presence would be to help reassure Turkey that Kurdish forces are not posing a threat to Ankara’s interests. It’s possible some troops would deploy first to Kuwait and then move into Syria.”
For what it’s worth: “Right now, no more than 5,262 troops are allowed in Iraq, with 5,155 there currently,” CNN reports. “There are hundreds more temporarily assigned that are not counted under the ceiling.”
Some Pentagon watchers, like Military Times, are already eyeing the 82nd Airborne: “multiple U.S. Army sources indicated that about two thousand soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team soon may bolster other Army elements already in the region. Currently, about 1,800 paratroopers from the 2nd BCT are in Iraq participating in the U.S. military’s train-and-advise mission. The 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.” More here.
It’s worth noting SecDef Mattis’s early reax to these rumors: “I don’t know…I think you’d have to ask that question of some others,” NBC’s Pentagon correspondent Hans Nichols reports this morning.
Retired vice admiral reportedly offered Flynn’s old job. Multiple news outlets say Robert S. Harward, a former Navy SEAL and deputy commander of U.S. Central Command has been offered the job of National Security Advisor in the wake of Mike Flynn’s departure. Harward graduated from an international high school in Iran (he speaks Persian), the U.S. Naval Academy, BUD/S (as the top-ranked graduate), the College of Naval Command and Staff, the Naval Staff College, and the Armed Forces Staff College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Foreign Policy program. Along the way, he deployed as a SEAL to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and did a stint on the National Security Council staff. Read more on Harward from ABC and Reuters.
White House-IC feud appears to be heating up. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. spies are keeping certain intelligence from the president for fear that he will expose it in one way or another.
Meanwhile, the White House reportedly plans a top-down review of the intelligence agencies, to be led by a billionaire Trump supporter whose “only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gun makers.” NYT, here.
And Vladimir Putin says the U.S. and other Western intel agencies should restore the ties severed after Russia annexed Crimea, and work together against terrorist groups. Reuters, here.
Lastly today: Iran defeats the U.S. Navy—in a cartoon coming to Iranian theaters soon, Reuters reported Wednesday. “The 88-minute animation opens with the U.S. Army attacking an Iranian nuclear reactor, and the U.S. Navy in the Gulf hitting strategic locations across the county. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of the Iranian military, retaliates with full force, raining ballistic missiles on the U.S. warships.”
The film, called “Battle of Persian Gulf II,” was reportedly “four years in the making,” according to Director Farhad Azima. Said Azima, in full spoiler-alert mode: “They all sink and the film ends as the American ships have turned into an aquarium for fishes at the bottom of the sea.” Read the rest, here—or catch the animated film’s trailer, generously posted by Russian Sputnik News, here.