Putin’s ‘military Disneyland’ not the happiest place; ‘Warheads on foreheads’ scrutinized; NDAA ahead of schedule; The hack from left field; And a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Kevin Baron

June 17, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin rather humorlessly (Is there any other kind?) marked the opening of his country’s “military Disneyland” about an hour from Moscow. But instead of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Putin announced a Tomorrowland-sized upgrade with the addition of 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Putin on Tuesday stayed his EPCOT-like ambitious course of updating Russia’s military to “great power status,” by announcing “that at least 70 percent of all weapons should be modernized by 2020. But there are signs that the money might run out first,” according to the New York Times, in light of post-Crimea sanctions on Russia’s economy. Neil MacFarquhar reported from the scene at Kubinka, saying, “The military budget jumped 32 percent last fall, only to be cut back by over 4 percent this year.” No word if that includes a monorail.
Secretary of State John Kerry on the 40 new nukes: “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement from the leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about what the implications are,” the Washington Post reports.
It’s a small world, after all. “It is one thing to use a force of up to 100,000 well-trained, well-booted soldiers to seize Crimea or even to destabilize a neighbor, but it is a very different matter to take on NATO,” says MacFarquhar. “Russia, lacking both the manpower and the weapons systems, will not be ready to do so any time soon, which is why Mr. Putin resorts to asymmetrical responses like nuclear weapons…”
Like pirates of the Caribbean, Russian forces have antagonized NATO vessels seven times since a major drill in the Baltic Sea (BALTOPS 2015), which is clearly not the happiest place on earth, began earlier this month. It “brings good training to our exercises,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, the alliance’s military chief, quipped yesterday.

Meantime, the big question facing America’s global counterterrorism strategy this week is: Are “warheads on foreheads” an effective deterrent? After news that a recent U.S. airstrike took out al-Qaeda’s second-in-command in Yemen, such seemingly endless “whack-a-mole” tactics are increasingly in the spotlight, as Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports.
“We still have a global reach,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters Tuesday. “We still retain the ability to find and kill terrorists anywhere they’re hiding in the world.” But, as Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday, “Counterterrorism operations of the type reported to have taken place here must always be considered as only one element in a multi-pronged approach….” Read the rest here.
The bureaucracy-prone al-Qaeda has a real problem with “middle management,”—we’ve heard that before, right?—and recent strikes against the group's top officials in Libya and Yemen illustrate its organizational weaknesses, and the less-talked-about yet growing power of local terrorism franchises, argues The Atlantic’s Kathy Gilsinan.
Al-Qaeda reportedly just executed two Saudi nationals in southeast Yemen—where peace talks between Riyadh and Houthi rebels have hit a roadblock. The group claims the two were spying for the U.S., Reuters reports this morning.

Over on Capitol Hill, the Senate moved ahead with its defense authorization bill earlier than usual, with a few surprises and disappointments paving the way. Lawmakers eager to arm Kurdish fighters directly (bypassing Baghdad) failed to earn enough votes to be added to the Senate’s defense authorization bill yesterday, Defense One’s O’Toole reports. Also falling short was another attempt from New York Democrat Kristin Gillibrand to alter military commanders’ convening authority over sexual assault cases.
Torture bad, lawmakers say again. The Senate did pass a controversial amendment “to reaffirm the prohibition on torture,” though the overall bill is under veto threat because it leaves sequestration in place, as National Journal reports. Still a long way to go for NDAA.

From Defense One

Congress has a glut of reasons to keep overseas contingency operations funding as it is, and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking lay them out in this hefty explainer.

Portions of a recently-declassified Central Intelligence Agency inspector general report reveal what's gotten better in the world of U.S. intelligence over the past decade—and what remains very much an uphill battle.

VIDEO: Reforming the Pentagon’s Cold War-era personnel system. If you couldn’t make it in person, now you can hear Brad Carson, the Defense Department’s acting personnel chief, dive into a long overdue plan to keep the military’s best and brightest. Carson joined Defense One’s Kevin Baron in conversation June 9, followed by a panel discussion with Vice Adm. Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel; Roy Wallace, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel; and Paige Hinkle-Bowles, deputy assistant secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy—right here.  

Welcome to Wednesday’s Dumbo edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson, hijacked by Defense One’s resident Disney aficionado, Kevin Baron. Why not fastpass it on to a friend? Or that bluebird on your shoulder? You’ll find our subscribe link here. (Want to read it in your browser? Keep your arms and legs inside the car, and click here.) And feel free to send us what you like, don’t like, or want to drop on our radar right here at the-d-brief@defenseone.com. It’s the wildest riiiiide in the wilderness!

While much has been made of the Kurdish push to clear Islamic State fighters from Syrian border town of Tal Abyad—a critical hub for transiting foreign fighters—much less is known about the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour, one of the first locations bombed when the U.S. opened the bombing campaign’s Syrian front in late September. In Deir al-Zour, the Islamic State’s good-cop-bad-cop governance style has given way to a more desperate policy: “make people hungry while they pay their fighters so that becoming one of them is the only way to live and eat,” an activist told the NYTs.
Another activist “said one of his cousins had joined the Islamic State, earning $100 per month, plus $100 for his parents and $40 each for his siblings, a strategy aimed at winning over the whole family…Residents of Islamic State areas did not describe easy lives, but some wanted the jihadists to stay, reflecting the deep political failures in their countries.”
How is one southern Iraqi village holding itself together? By banning political debate outright, WaPo’s Loveday Morris reports from Albunahidh.
ICYMIAnalysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a detailed and historical review of the “‘shattered’ military balance in the Levant” that assesses Syria, Iran, Israel, Egypt (which just foiled an attack in North Sinai this morning, killing seven suspected militants), Jordan and Lebanon. Read the full report here.
The folks at the Stimson Center just released a report detailing the UN’s inability to tackle global challenges across a broad and depressing spectrum of threats, AP reported yesterday. You can catch Stimson’s full report on the matter right here.
See also former State Secretary Madeleine Albright and former UN official Ibrahim Gambari's op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday advocating for big changes to the way the UN needs to recalibrate its relevance for the conflicts ahead.

Meantime, the Pentagon is just about clear of congressional hurdles to spend the full $1.62 billion approved last year to train and equip Iraqi and Kurdish forces, Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio reports. Purchases waiting for a green light “include $37 million to buy 57,600 of U.S.-made M4 Carbines for Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish units…498 M2 .50-caliber machine guns…1,704 Carl Gustaf M3 recoilless rifles…5,000 AK-47 assault rifles…[and] 2,256 AN/PSN-15 advanced hand-held Global Position Systems devices valued at $6 million for the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurds.”

South of the U.S. border, the Mexican military is on a “buying binge” that represents a “100-fold increase from prior years,” WaPo reports. “Since [President] Peña Nieto came to office in late 2012, Mexico has purchased about $1.5 billion in equipment through the government’s military sales program, plus $2 billion more through U.S. companies… a sign of the intensity of the war against the drug cartels.”
And up in Nevada, there’s no rest for the weary drone operators working out of Creech Air Force Base, Col. Jim Cluff, Commander 432d Wing and the 432 Air Expeditionary Wing, told reporters on Tuesday. Creech serves as the hub for United States drone operations in Syria and Iraq, where there’ve been more than 3,300 sorties and 875 missile and bomb strikes against the Islamic State since last August out of Creech, Defense One Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports. But that doesn’t speak to the size of the mission or the amount of work that goes into any specific drone strike. “There are times when we fly for 6,000 hours before striking a target,” said Cluff.
Media accounts may give the impression that the air campaign against ISIS is split somewhat evenly between fighter jets and drones, but that perception conceals an important fact about the growing importance of the drone program in supplying intelligence and surveillance data to fighter jets as well in the absence of any on the ground intelligence operation. “We’re involved in every engagement that’s taking place in [Operation Inherent Resolve]” said Cluff. One result of that, the number of combat air patrols, or CAPS, flown out of the base, will be brought down from 65 to 60 by September despite a need that's on the increase, rather than the decrease. “We’ve got to catch up," said Cluff. Watch this space later for more from Tucker reporting out of Creech.

Back in black—or charcoal—as Kirby returns to the stateside podium. Shedding his Navy dress blues for a tailored charcoal suit, blue shirt and olive-green tie, John Kirby, former Pentagon press secretary, stepped up to the podium for his first official briefing as the State Department spokesman on Tuesday. Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, most of the TVs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs (OSDPA) and nearby reporters’ bullpen were tuned in to see the now retired rear admiral make his debut at State. Kerry welcomed Kirby via video screen from his home in Boston where he is recovering from a broken leg. Kerry said it was a “special privilege” to welcome Kirby. “We're really delighted to have you part of this team,” everyone back in the Pentagon heard him say, loud and clear.
Speaking of suits and podiums, hairpiece mogul Donald Trump entered the 2016 race for the White House yesterday. And that’s about all we can muster enthusiasm-wise for the on-again-off-again real estate titan’s return to politics. (“Nobody will be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump,” said Donald Trump.) Feel free to read his speech for yourself, which Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel called a “Dada masterpiece,” here.

From the world of corporate espionage—and straight out of left field. Once reserved for nation-states, terrorists or activists, the dark art of hacking has come to Major League Baseball. On Tuesday, the FBI and Justice Departments announced an investigation into allegations that National League titans St. Louis Cardinals hacked the AL West-leading Houston Astros to steal “special databases” a former Cardinals official built after pioneering the software while at St. Louis. Actually, “hacked” may be too strong a word; the official may have used the same passwords in Texas that he used in Missouri. “Today I used a pencil and paper in all my conversations,” he said after news of the breach broke. But at least the Astros haven’t been reduced to using typewriters, as the Kremlin was said to have done back in 2013.

And since we’re all about “the future” here at Defense One, here’s the original EPCOT Center opening TV special, with your host Danny Kaye and stars like Marie Osmond, little Drew Barrymore, astronaut Alan Shepard, and… the West Point Glee Club!

By Ben Watson and Kevin Baron // 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. // Kevin Baron is the founding executive editor of Defense One. Baron has lived in Washington for 20 years, covering international affairs, the military, the Pentagon, Congress, and politics for Foreign Policy, National Journal, Stars and Stripes, and the Boston Globe, where he ran investigative projects for five years at the Washington bureau. He is a frequent on-air contributor and previously was national security/military analyst at NBC News & MSNBC. Baron cut his muckraking teeth at the Center for Public Integrity and he is twice a Polk Award winner and former vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. He earned his M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University, his B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond, and studied in Paris. Raised in Florida, Baron now lives in Northern Virginia.

June 17, 2015