Shiite militias surge to Ramadi; Air Force UAV operators get a break; Lifting the veil on drones for 2016; Americans rescued from Ukraine; And a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

May 19, 2015

Bring on the Shi’a militias. At least 3,000 Iranian-aligned Shiite militia fighters descended on Iraq’s Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi yesterday, reportedly launching assaults on the Islamic State militants who seized the Sunni-majority city over the weekend and threatened to take Baghdad next. The decision to send the militias illustrates the dire straits confronting the U.S.-led coalition; Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had little choice but to ask Iranian officials for help on Monday, a move that puts U.S. officials in a particularly delicate spot. GOP leaders Sens. John McCain of Arizona and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham called the fall of Ramadi “a sad reminder of this administration’s indecisive air campaign.”
“There is no denying that this is indeed a setback. But there is also no denying we will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said yesterday. A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said, “We will retake [Ramadi] in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power.”
Iraqi security forces are said to be outnumbered by the PMUs, the Iranian paramilitary units, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas and Matt Bradley, who report some 75,000 militia fighters have been preparing for the battle in Ramadi. American troops, meantime, have trained 7,000 Iraqi forces, but Iraqi officials say the program is moving too slowly and want to send U.S. special forces to the front lines. Baghdad’s once-200,000-strong military has rapidly dissolved since ISIS took Mosul last year.
From the department of good news: Iraqi troops and Sunni tribesmen reportedly repelled an overnight attack on the western Anbar town of Khaldiya, AP reports this morning.

Saudi-led airstrikes pounded Yemen’s capital of Sana’a last night as Houthis rebels reportedly renewed their cross-border mortar attacks on Saudi Arabia’s southern Najran province, Reuters reports this morning. And the death toll from the conflict has eclipsed 1,600, The Washington Post’s Ali al-Mujahed and Erin Cunningham reported yesterday.

Libya is heating up now, too, and the Pentagon has very few good options. A car bomb struck a checkpoint in the eastern city of Qubbah this morning, killing one and wounding seven, Reuters reports. And ISIS leaders in Syria are surging money and manpower to Libya in alarming numbers, according to WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum and Maria Abi-Habib. “Libya is part of their terror map now…How do we stop it? It’s a huge concern,” a U.S. military official said.

From Defense One

The Air Force scaled back its unmanned aircraft operations to allow its overworked operators catch their breath. Combat air patrols were reduced on Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s order from 65 to 60 back in April, said Col. James Cluff, who’s flown the secretive RQ-170 and currently oversees Air Force UAV ops at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Our own Marcus Weisgerber has the story, along with another Kedar Pavgi chart illustrating CAP levels since 2008.

Americans ought to know how the next president will conduct the shadowy drone campaigns, New America’s Peter Singer and Laura Dickinson write. They’ve drawn up a list of questions voters and members of the media can pitch the candidates, including: “In any campaign beyond active war zones, will you personally approve each drone strike or delegate the kill decision based on certain pre-approved criteria?”

Call it a pre-announcement announcement from the 2016 campaign trail. South Carolina Republican and senior national security hawk Senator Lindsey Graham said on CBS yesterday he will enter the race for the White House…but not until June 1. National Journal’s Matt Berman has that one. More from the jam-packed GOP race for the White House below.

Don’t believe the hype: America’s biggest trade deal ever—the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP—will do next to nothing to address China’s increasingly aggressive role in the Asia Pacific, argue Daniel Slane and Michael Wessel of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

White House wants to demilitarize the U.S. police. In the wake of protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., President Barack Obama announced police would no longer be able to acquire a variety of military gear from the Defense Department, including—yes—bayonets. Quartz’ Tim Fernholz has more.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson with Brad Peniston. You can subscribe here or drop us a line at If you want to view it in your browser, click here.

State Secretary John Kerry reportedly secured the May 9 release of two American aid workers secretly held in Ukraine since at least April, Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report this morning. Separatists in Donetsk grabbed the two Americans in a cluster of seven Western aid workers, five of whom they released on April 29; separatists kept the Americans—one a doctor and the other a worker with the International Rescue Committee—on allegations the two worked for the CIA.
The conflict in Ukraine and the war with ISIS have the Air Force trying to lure its former Airmen back to duty, Air Force Times’ Stephen Losey reported yesterday. The decision, which has at least three different facets, follows steep budget-driven force reductions that have totaled nearly 17,000 since the October 2013.
The pop culture profile of drones is rising. See, for example, “Good Kill,” the new Ethan Hawke flick, and “Grounded,” Anne Hathaway’s one-woman play. So what do the real airmen think? “I’ve been unimpressed by the lack of accuracy,” Air Force Col. James Cluff told Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. The Air Force has tried to give advice to production companies, which would have allowed them to use real aircraft in the films, but Hollywood has been more interested in drama.

A recent U.S. drone strike has killed at least five suspected fighters in Pakistan’s northwestern Shawal Valley, where Pakistani troops are engaged in a large-scale offensive to push out militants from the region, Reuters reports this morning.
And in Afghanistan, a judge has jailed 11 Afghan policemen for failing to stop the brutal mob killing of a woman in broad daylight in mid-March, AFP reports today.

In Singapore, Asia’s biggest maritime defense show gets started today: the 10th biennial Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference. Defense News’ Wendell Minnick reports growing interest surrounding potential purchases by the host country, including a new maritime patrol aircraft, a mid-life upgrade for F-16s and the possible purchase of the F-35.

The three-day Special Operations Forces Industry Conference opens in Tampa today, drawing special operators and those who would supply them to Florida’s west coast. Co-hosted by U.S. Special Operations Command, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base a few miles from downtown Tampa, the show is expected to pump some $3 million into the city’s economy, the Tampa Tribune’s Howard Altman reports.
But if SOCOM’s acquisitions chief has his way, the city will soon host something like a rolling SOFIC, an incubator dubbed Thunderdome that would draw on the military, local universities, incubators, accelerators and other organizations to help SOCOM develop the next generation of gear. Here’s Altman once more.

Also today: SOUTHCOM’s Gen. John Kelly is at the Atlantic Council this afternoon at 4:30 p.m., EDT, talking “The Future of U.S. Defense Cooperation in Latin America.” It could make for a lively discussion considering reporting out of Venezuela that U.S. investigators are probing numerous high-ranking officials on charges they’ve turned the country into a “global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering,” according to WSJ’s José de Córdoba and Juan Forero.
And today marks the sixth anniversary of Ray Mabus’ appointment as the 75th Secretary of the Navy. Mabus is the second-longest serving Navy secretary since the Defense Department was founded in 1949.
Speaking of Mabus: We’re just 24 hours away from his discussion with Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron on the future of the Navy. Our latest Defense One LIVE Leadership Briefing Breakfast will get started tomorrow at 8 a.m., EDT, at the CEB Waterview Conference Center in Rosslyn, Va. Last day to sign up is today.

The full Senate could take up the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act next month, an aide said. The Senate Armed Services Committee finished its $612 billion draft last week. But Obama has already threatened to veto the version passed by the House because it stuffed money into supplemental funding rather than repeal sequestration. The Hill reports.

Many survivors of sexual assault in the military say the retaliation they suffered after reporting was actually worse than the assault itself, according to a 113-page report issued yesterday by Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization. Military Times’ Stephen Losey has the story.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made his case for commander-in-chief yesterday, choosing Maine’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as his backdrop, the AP reported. His pitch? A more muscular U.S. foreign policy and increased defense spending to reverse “American power…in retreat.” He highlighted his work as a U.S. attorney in a heated debate over the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and said of Hollywood and Edward Snowden: “They want you to think that there’s a government agent listening in every time you pick up the phone or Skype with your grandkids.”
ICYMI: “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace had some tough questions for Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been trying to position himself as the national security expert for a new normal in 2016. Wallace said Rubio “became much more of a hawk on foreign policy to try to get back in with the right,” and Rubio backpedaled a bit on his statement that he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003 had he known what we know now—as he imagined  President George W. Bush would’ve decided as well. “He wasn’t dealing with a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was dealing with Saddam Hussein…But presidents don’t have the benefit of hindsight. You have to make difficult decisions based on the information that’s before you at that moment.”

And one final bit from the campaign trail: Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is receiving lots of love from the tech industry—to the tune of some $315,000 for a 20-minute talk, WaPo says. The paper earlier reported that she raked in nearly $25 million in speeches since January 2014.

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, 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.

May 19, 2015