‘What we’re doing is working’ in Iraq; Hostile forces converging in Syria; Russian-backed forces advance in Ukraine; Navy’s cybersecurity chief, in conversation; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

March 2, 2017

Trump’s big day at the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). “Where better to tout a military spending hike than from the deck of the most expensive ship ever built?” CNN writes ahead of President Donald Trump’s address to troops this afternoon in Newport News, Va.

Trump’s address comes just two days after Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered new ISIS war plan options to the White House. But don’t get too worked up, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters Wednesday. The coalition commander in Iraq said, "I don't foresee us bringing in large numbers of coalition troops, mainly because what we're doing is, in fact, working…But in the event that we bring in any additional troops, we'll work that with our local partners, both here in Iraq and Syria, to make sure that they understand the reasons why we're doing that and to get their buy-in of that." More on the wider ISIS fight below.

Anatomy of a metaphor, from CNN: “The nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier is currently berthed in Newport News shipyard, Virginia, as it readies for its final sea trials as the first of a new class of flat-top ships to take to the seas. The hulking giant will provide Trump the showman with a dramatic $13 billion metaphor for his plan to boost the Navy's 270 vessels to around 350.”

Adds Military Times: “The $12.9 billion ship, built at Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., has faced numerous delays and criticism over the course of its construction. Last summer, two of Ford's electricity-generating main turbines suffered mechanical problems, resulting in another delivery delay. The carrier was originally scheduled to be completed in 2014.”

Worth noting here: “Along with the Navy build up, Trump has said he wants to add more than 60,000 soldiers to the Army’s active-duty ranks and 12,000 more Marines to serve in infantry and tank battalions,” Military Times reports. “He also has plans to add at least another 100 combat aircraft for the Air Force.”

Adds Military Times: “Trump has not specified how that military build-up will be paid for, other than his public pledges to cut waste and fraud in federal programming.”

Calamity in Syria. The war against ISIS in Mosul is relatively well-defined—Baghdad’s various security forces, coalition advisers supporting up and down the line, and Iranian-aligned militias pushing in from the west. But the fault lines in the war against ISIS in Syria got further strained on Tuesday when “some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb[ed] some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS. Yet, they were actually—on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab Coalition forces,” Townsend told reporters in his VTC. The strikes occurred some 10 miles southwest of Manbij, The New York Times reported.

The outskirts of Manbij have fast become a place where almost every player in the Syrian war is converging. Said Townsend: “Around Al Bab, all the forces that are acting in Syria have converged literally within hand-grenade range of one another.”

The situation: “Russian special forces, U.S. special forces, Turkish special forces, Iranian irregulars, the [Syrian] regime, regime militias, the YPG, the SAC, and [Turkey’s] Euphrates Shield militias are in mortar range,” warned Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council.

But there’s even more to uncoil from that fraught location, Stein says: “U.S. drones, Turkish drones, Russian drones, Iranian drones, U.S. fixed wing, Russian Air Force fixed wing and helos, [Syrian] regime fixed wing and helos share airspace” near Manbij.

On top of all this, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield troops are “fighting the regime, regime allied militias, the SAC, and YPG.” And, and in far northwest Syria, “the YPG tried to [attack] a Turkish convoy [with anti-tank guided missiles]. All on Wednesday.”

Enough pieces to track? Here's AFP's Maya Gebeily describing what it's like explaining all this to those who will listen.

Now back to the scene in Manbij: “The Russian bombing stopped after American military officers at the air war command in Qatar called their Russian counterparts in Syria,” writes NYTs.

But—surprise, surprise—the Russians have a very different view of what happened. “Not a single air strike on the regions specified by the US side was conducted by Russian or Syrian air forces,” the defense ministry responded Wednesday, according to state-run RT news.

For what it’s worth, the Times reports, “This is the second time in recent weeks that there has been an episode of so-called friendly fire involving the Russians. Last month, Russian fighters mistakenly bombed Turkish soldiers near Al Bab. The Russian airstrikes also raise the question of whether the American military needs to broaden its dialogue with Russian commanders over operations in Syria.” More here.

Another raised question about the U.S. role fighting ISIS in Syria: what to do about the Kurds of the YPG, so hated by America’s allies in Turkey. YPG fighters in Manbij said this morning Russia helped broker an agreement to hand over SDF-held villages to the Syrian government, Reuters reports.

Will the U.S. ditch the SDF in the offensive on Raqqa? Townsend seemed to pour some cold water on the idea, saying Wednesday the plan is still for the SDF to participate “in some form or fashion,” the Washington Post reported. Townsend said the coalition would only use Kurds from the Raqqa governorate for the offensive, hoping to assuage Ankara’s fears of an eventual expansion of Kurdish-held territory on Turkey’s doorstep. More on those dynamics, here.

The American special forces raid in Yemen in late January was anything but a total wash, officials told The New York Times Wednesday. “Computers and cellphones seized during a deadly Special Operations raid in Yemen in January offer clues about attacks Al Qaeda could carry out in the future, including insights into new types of hidden explosives the group is making and new training tactics for militants,” unnamed officials told the Times. Story here.

Extra reading: Get to better know the volatile area off the coast of Yemen, the “Bab al-Mandab Shipping Chokepoint,” a narrow link between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, via a new report from the Washington Institute. Their BLUF: “The United States and its allies must be prepared for more incidents in the Bab al-Mandab. Contingency planning should include immediate steps to maintain free passage for commercial shipping, and to ensure that humanitarian aid can reach Yemen's estimated population of twenty-seven million, about a quarter of which reportedly faces famine. It is difficult to imagine any such intervention or parallel diplomatic effort succeeding without Washington taking the lead role.” More here.

You can also review maritime piracy hotspots, via a recent map from analysts at STRATFOR, here; or glimpse a global shipping density map, via Hofstra University researchers, here.


From Defense One

UN Report Alleges Syrian War Crimes in Aleppo, Rebutting Russian Denials // Patrick Tucker: The document backs up open-source and think-tank reporting on the Assad regime's use of chlorine gas.

Sikorsky Pitches Area 51 Security Helicopters to Guard ICBMs // Marcus Weisgerber: Company executives say it's the most efficient way for the Air Force to replace its half-century-old Hueys.

Trump's State Department Anxiously Awaits its Future // The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe: Shaken up and set adrift, a foreign-policy bureaucracy confronts the possibility of radical change.

Watch: The Future of War and the US Navy // Bradley Peniston: How does the Navy's cyber requirements chief keep up with the lightning-fast evolution of network tools and threats? Rear Adm. Nancy Norton explains.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1949: A U.S. Air Force B-50 Superfortress completed the first non-stop round-the-world trip, having refueled four times during the flight. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


Trouble in Trumpland? Trump’s attorney general talked with the Russian ambassador last year, but didn’t disclose it when asked about such contacts at his confirmation hearing, the Washington Post reports. A spokesman for Jeff Sessions responded that he “did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions.” Sessions, who oversees the FBI’s counterespionage efforts, is under pressure to recuse himself from investigations into connections between President Trump and Moscow.

Here are 30 ways Congress can respond to Russian hacking, offered in HASC testimony Wednesday by New America fellow (and Defense One contributor) Peter Singer. Noting that there’s no serious opposition to the conclusion that Moscow is working to undermine and influence the U.S. and its allies, Singer works his way through a list of ways to increase deterrence and resilience. Read on, here.

In Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels “are taking over scores of factories and mines in eastern Ukraine,” AP reported Wednesday. Reuters adds that 200,000 residents in Donetsk lost their phone service as a result. “The moves announced Wednesday by the rebels came after a weekslong blockade of the east by Ukrainian nationalists and right-wingers. The blockade has seriously disrupted trade on both sides, cutting off much of the coal shipments to government-controlled territory and impeding shipments from the mills and factories that are the east's economic backbone….Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told local media on Wednesday that in retaliation for Kiev's blockade, the rebels have taken over the management of 40 factories and coal mines. They include those owned by tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who is regarded as Ukraine's richest person.”

The Russian reax: “…in view of the blockade, the rebel authorities ‘hardly had any other choice’ other than to seize the businesses,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. More here.

Also in Europe: “Sweden brings back military conscription amid Baltic tensions,” the BBC reports. “The decision means that 4,000 men and women will be called up for service from 1 January 2018, a defence ministry spokeswoman told the BBC. They will be selected from about 13,000 young people born in 1999, who will be asked to take psychological and physical tests, Marinette Radebo said. Sweden, a neutral country, is worried about Russia's Baltic military drills.” More here.

Battlefield update: ISIS, by the numbers. There are estimated to be between 12,000 and 15,000 ISIS fighters still in Iraq and Syria, with nearly 2,000 holed up in the west Mosul-Tal Afar pocket, Lt. Gen. Townsend told reporters Wednesday. U.S. military officials have said the numbers game on these matters is often “squishy,” which is to say, an imprecise science. But that hasn’t kept other officials from tossing out some figures anyway—like the most recent body count from SOCOM’s Gen. Tony Thomas in mid-February, estimating the coalition has killed more than 60,000 ISIS fighters.  

Of those still putting up a fight in West Mosul, Townsend estimated foreign fighters to be “probably only about 10 percent of the enemy's ranks,” with “probably another 10 or 20 percent that are very hardened local fighters and regional fighters.”

In West Mosul today, Iraqi forces are fighting off a fierce counter-attack from ISIS reportedly initiated due to a “storm [that] hampered air surveillance and on-the-ground visibility,” Reuters reports from the city.

NPR’s Alice Fordham reports this morning citizens are fleeing the western half of the city at an average of 4,000 per day—the largest exodus yet from the Mosul offensive. Reuters reports that ISIS fighters are shooting at civilians they can spot attempting to flee.

In Pakistan, a suspected U.S. drone strike “struck two men riding a motorcycle in Pakistan's northern Kurram Agency, part of the country's lawless tribal areas said to be home to militants from both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as al Qaeda,” Reuters reports this morning, citing a local government official and a village elder.

In neighboring Afghanistan, the ISIS affiliate “is expanding to new areas, recruiting fighters and widening the reach of attacks in the region, members of the movement and Afghan officials” told Reuters. “U.S. officials say intelligence suggests IS is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar province….The extent of direct operational links between IS in Afghanistan and the Middle East remains unclear, although most fighters in the ‘Khorasan Province’ are Afghans, Pakistanis or Central Asians. Still, three members of the group told Reuters a handful of Arab advisers helped direct propaganda, recruiting and identifying targets for attack.” More here.

So the U.S. Army sent a drone on a “630-mile odyssey across western U.S.,” and no one knows exactly why just yet, Stars and Stripes reports. A Shadow RQ-7Bv2 "launched from southern Arizona on Jan. 31, flew hundreds of miles independent from human control and was found Feb. 9, broken apart in a tree outside Denver."

One big Q: “how the flight of the $1.5 million aircraft with a range of about 77 miles reached a point eight times that distance.”

One thought: “strong winds from the southwest into Colorado on Jan. 31…could have aided the Shadow on its long flight…but this Shadow not returning raises the possibility that its emergency programming failed.”

Much more to the (developing) story, here.


By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge. // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national-security journalist for two decades, he helped launch Military.com, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

March 2, 2017

http://www.defenseone.com/news/2017/03/the-d-brief-march-02-2017/135827/