By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston
March 3, 2017
Escalation in Yemen. U.S. aircraft laced suspected al-Qaeda positions with nearly two dozen airstrikes across Yemen in a single day, the Pentagon announced Thursday. Also this morning, “Residents in Yemen said U.S. soldiers fought two separate gun battles with al Qaeda militants overnight,” Reuters reports, writing, “If confirmed, it would be the first time Washington has deployed ground troops in the country since a Navy Seal was killed in a similar operation on Jan. 29.”
More on those alleged ground attacks: “One of the targets in the raid, shortly after midnight, was the home of Saad Atef, an al Qaeda leader in the area. The assault included about 10 to 15 air strikes, some of which hit civilian homes, and a number of civilians were among the wounded, residents said. About three hours later, residents in the Jabal Mugan area of neighboring Abyan province reported air strikes and gun battles between suspected al Qaeda fighters and U.S. soldiers that also lasted about half an hour.” More on that, here.
About those 20-plus airstrikes on Thursday: An unnamed defense official told the Washington Post “there was a total of 25 strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft, far more attacks in a single night than the United States has conducted in recent history.”
Writes Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations: President “Trump just OK'd the most intensive day of drone strikes since 9/11. There's never been so many different strikes in one day in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.” Zenko, who has been steeped in U.S. drone strike data for years, pulls out a few more interesting stats from Trump’s time in office so far: The “most U.S. strikes in Yemen in one year was 47 in 2012; Trump has authorized at least 24 in just 40 days.” And that comes out to about one drone strike every 1.6 days—versus the Obama average of one every 5.4 days. More to Zenko’s notes and numbers, here.
What occurred Thursday: A man the Post reports is the “head of the government’s special forces media office in Aden, described a multi-pronged air assault, which he said involved not only aircraft but also attacks from U.S. ships off Yemen’s coast. In one instance, a car was struck near an area of Abyan province called Mowjan, killing all five passengers, he said. Senior AQAP figures were thought to be among the dead.” The Post writes that it appears to be too soon for a wider casualty count, “but local news media reported that ‘hundreds’ of militants were slain.”
What’s behind this? There is, of course, that late January SEAL raid worth flagging in this context. That raid reportedly yielded “terabytes” of intelligence off of computers and cell phones, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Thursday. That intel is being used "to locate and monitor hundreds of people or 'contacts'…[some who] are believed to be in the West."
But perhaps more to the point, the Post reports “that the military had been granted temporary authority to conduct intensified air operations against AQAP in some areas of Yemen. The granting of that authority for what is known in government jargon as an ‘area of active hostility’ typically enables the military to launch strikes without a more lengthy approval process managed by the White House.”
Granting these new authorities is hardly new, writes the Post. Something similar happened ahead of the “multi-month air campaign against the Islamic State last year” in Libya. More to the story—including a bit more on some recent reports of U.S. troops landing in Yemen by helicopter, but who reportedly departed without firing a shot—here.
One more thing: WaPo’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff highlights another obstacle in the way of OPSEC for American special operators in Yemen. The culprit here: footwear.
Trump promises a 12-carrier navy. The president was met with a hearty applause break Thursday “when he pledged to end across-the-board budget cuts” for his audience of “shipbuilders who have endured years of budget uncertainty,” the Newport News Daily Press reported from Trump’s visit to the USS Gerald Ford.
“In a 15-minute span, he lauded Newport News shipbuilders, the ship's crew and officers, and heaped praise upon its namesake, former President Gerald R. Ford, and his daughter and ship's sponsor, Susan Ford Bales. He said the Ford 'will make an extraordinary addition to our fleet,' skipping past the ship's litany of problems early in its development."
President Trump: "This is American craftsmanship at its biggest and its best and its finest…By the way, we're going to soon have more coming…I just spoke with Navy and industry leaders and have discussed my plan to undertake a major expansion of our entire Navy fleet, including having the 12-carrier Navy we need.”
He continued, “We also need more aircraft, modernized capabilities, and greater force levels. Additionally, we must vastly improve our cyber capabilities. This great rebuilding effort will create many jobs in Virginia, and all across America, and it will also spur new technology and new innovation.”
The promises align with Trump’s go-big-or-go-bigger approach to bolstering U.S. defense—vowing to boost nearly every service’s troop counts, new ships and planes, as well as increasing the country’s nuclear arsenal. But the carrier promise is somewhat different, noted Max Fisher of The New York Times. “The US has 10 of the world's 18 carriers. What can we do with 12 we can't with 10? Anything? They cost $5-10bn each.” So he did a little digging and found, “what it would take to build more aircraft carriers: $2bn/year and would take 20+ years.”
The looming question, he asks: “And what do we get in return exactly?” Replied The Wall Street Journal’s Middle East columnist, Yaroslav Trofimov: “Manufacturing jobs?”
So, how’s the Pentagon responding to all this White House talk of big defense spending around the bend? “The services are betting that Mr. Trump will eventually win a large enough chunk of the money so that they can do a bit of everything, like reversing recent declines in the number of soldiers and Marines and breaking logjams over how many high-tech jets and ships they can afford to build,” writes NYTs. “But analysts say that the ultimate figure will be decided less by the Pentagon’s support for particular programs than in overall budget negotiations between Congress and Mr. Trump, who is trying to change the kind of deals that have been struck since a deficit-reduction law required cuts in federal spending.” More on that, here.
By the way: “House appropriators introduced a $578 billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2017 on Thursday, and hope to race it to the floor next week,” Defense News reported. Read on here, or check out some of the high-profile requests, here.
While Trump spoke from the deck of the Gerald Ford, another U.S. Navy carrier—the USS Carl Vinson (photos, via Reuters, here)—is transiting from the South China Sea to the coast of Korea for upcoming drills with Seoul, Yonhap news reports this morning after “the South Korean and U.S. militaries on Wednesday kicked off the two-month field training exercise involving ground, air and naval forces. The U.S. supercarrier will make use of its air assets, as well as its escort ships in the maneuvers that aims to deter North Korean aggression.”
The Vinson will be in the area for the upcoming “Key Resolve computer-simulated command post exercise on March 13,” a two-week drill that will also include the F-35B, Yonhap writes. Also involved: “the B-1B and B-52 bombers, with the tiltrotor V-22 Osprey to make an appearance, in a show of force against the North, which has stepped up its nuclear and missile threats. Some 10,000 U.S. soldiers, including 3,600 from outside South Korea, and about 290,000 South Korean troops will join this year's Foal Eagle, the USFK and Seoul's defense ministry said.” More here.
And before we leave the Asia-Pacific, “Chinese jets and warships carried out exercises near Taiwan and into the Western Pacific on Thursday,” increasing anxiety for Taiwan, Reuters reported Thursday. “China's official Xinhua news agency said fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft had flown through the Miyako Strait, between the southern Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and to the northeast of Taiwan, and into the Pacific. They then carried out drills with Chinese warships in the area to improve interoperability between the two services.” More here.
Want to Win Wars? Fund Soft Power, Trump's Generals Say // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: The president's proposal to boost military spending at the expense of diplomacy and foreign aid won't lead to victory.
Pentagon Advisers Want Cyber 'Tiger Teams,' More Authorities for Cyber Command // Patrick Tucker: Pentagon advisers: We need more infrastructure cybersecurity. Congress: We want more election-hacking security.
Air Force Wants to Test a Laser on an Attack Plane Within A Year // Marcus Weisgerber: But the U.S. Special Operations Command still needs money for the test and policymakers need to figure out the rules of engagement.
What Putin Is Up To // Strobe Talbott and Jessica Brandt: And why he may have overplayed his hand.
The Global Business Brief: March 2 // Marcus Weisgerber: Air Force conference kicks off; Trump's defense budget; Q&A with Airbus' U.S. boss, and more.
DARPA Tests Dirty-Bomb-Hunting Ambulances // Mohana Ravindranath: You may not have known it, but some D.C. ambulances were searching for radiation while they drove.
Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1776: U.S. Marines raid Nassau, Bahamas, the new service’s first amphibious landing. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: email@example.com.)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to give up control over Justice Department investigations into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. His recusal came a day after the Washington Post revealed that Sessions had indeed met with Russian officials during the campaign, appearing to belie what he said under oath at his Senate confirmation hearing. The attorney general is the latest in a string of Trump-related officials, including ex-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who interacted with Russians during the campaign and later denied it.
For the record: Trump and others in his presidential campaign have issued at least 20 denials of such contacts. USA Today is keeping a list.
U.S. air power helped Hezbollah in Syria, the Washington Post reported Thursday. But it also helped Russia and Syrian regime troops in their march to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS…again: “The government victory came nearly three months after the Islamic State marched back into the town in a surprise assault that appeared to have taken the Syrian army unawares.” Thursday’s advances, announced by the Syrian army, mark “the fourth time Palmyra has changed hands in less than two years,” the Post writes.
What transpired this week: “The offensive to retake Palmyra was supported by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, whose fighters have been instrumental in securing President Bashar al-Assad’s survival over the past five years…The Syrian offensive was also aided by Russian airstrikes, according to Russian news reports quoting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.”
About that U.S. airpower: “The Syrian statement did not mention the role of the United States, which has also stepped up strikes in the Palmyra area in recent weeks.” However, the Post notes (as did others on Thursday), “During the last 10 days of February, the U.S. military conducted 23 strikes against Islamic State fighting units, tanks, storage facilities and command centers, according to the daily tally issued by the U.S. Central Command. Altogether in February, U.S. warplanes carried out 45 strikes in Palmyra.”
The Pentagon’s reax: “The U.S. military has denied coordinating strikes directly either with Russia or the Syrian government but has said in the past that it is striking Palmyra to prevent military equipment captured by the Islamic State from being used by the militants in battles elsewhere against U.S.-backed forces.” Read on, here.
Some of Syria’s rebels took a swipe at former President Obama, urging President Trump to correct BO’s "catastrophic mistakes,” Reuters reported Thursday from peace talks in Geneva. But anyone’s guess if this will fall on deaf ears in the Trump White House since, as one rebel representative said, “Their policy is still unknown.”
In northern Iraq, rival Kurds are fighting each other near Sinjar, with “martyrs and wounded on both sides,” Reuters reports. “The deadly fighting erupted when Peshmerga Rojava forces moved towards the border with Syria, encroaching on territory controlled by a local affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).”
About these two groups: “The Peshmerga Rojava is made up of Kurds from Syria and was formed and trained in Iraq with the backing of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Friday's clashes, which lasted several hours, pitted them against the YBS, which was set up there by the PKK after it came to the aid of the Yazidi population when the area was overrun by Islamic State in the summer of 2014…Most Yazidis are still displaced from their homes, but some families who returned to Sinjar fled again on Friday, including a 19-year from the town of Khanasor where the clashes took place.” More here.
In Mosul, ISIS hid a training camp inside a mile-long old railway tunnel, and The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Kesling took a look inside. Found: a “clinic, mosque, rifle range, obstacle course and sleeping areas.” He shared a few photos you can find here, here and here. Read all about it, here.
Oh, and outside the city, Kesling found a stray TOW missile. That’s about all he knows about it, he said, because he had no interest in inspection a bomb on an open battlefield. TOW, here.
Also around Mosul: the Hemingways of the ISIS war—“chaos-seeking veterans” playing the very serious role of medics, Stars and Stripes’ Chad Garland reports from the city.
ICYMI: Elsewhere in the global ISIS fight, Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters are reportedly teaming up in Libya, according to the country’s defense minister, The Telegraph reported Wednesday. More to what feeds that suspicion—it involves a certain famous one-eyed AQ leader named Mokhtar Belmokhtar—here.
Lastly this week: “Why Brad Pitt's ‘War Machine’ Film Nixed Its Gen. McChrystal Character,” via the Hollywood Reporter. “Pitt was supposed to play the infamous four-star general in the film, but the character has been reconfigured as the fictitious Gen. Glenn McMahon.”
Why? As you can probably guess by now: “to avoid potential legal headaches,” according to a “source” from the movie’s production team. The whole thing was built on “the late Michael Hastings' controversial best-seller ‘The Operators’ as a star vehicle. During its four-year journey to the screen, the David Michod-helmed film's title morphed into War Machine and shifted tonally from drama to Wag the Dog-esque satire.”
So the tenor changed, “But it remained very much the story of McChrystal,” whose tale you likely know well thanks to Hastings’ 2010 Rolling Stone article. Catch up on all the drama, er satire, to come—here. And we’ll see everyone again on Monday!
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 almost 20 years, he helped launch Military.com, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. He has written two books about the U.S. Navy, including 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 3, 2017