Railway heroes knighted; Pacific pivot still on; Korean tensions rise; ISIS used chemical weapons; And a bit more.

Let us now praise heroic men. Two enlisted U.S. troops—along with their childhood friend and another British citizen—became French knights this morning as “French President François Hollande made them Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor, awarding them France’s highest decoration,” the Washington Post reports after their right-place-right-time heroics on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris averted what appeared to have been an almost certain bloodbath on Friday.
Their names: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, 23, of California; Oregon Army National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos, 22 and fresh off a deployment to Afghanistan; childhood friend Anthony Sadler, 23, and British businessman Chris Norman, WaPo and NYT report. “We just kind of acted. There wasn’t much thinking going on. At least on my end,” Skarlatos said.
About the culprit: A Moroccan man in his mid-20s with three different weapons—a Kalashnikov assault rifle (that apparently malfunctioned right at the top of what his lawyer called simply a “botched robbery”) with nearly a dozen loaded magazines; a Luger pistol; and a box cutter. “One need only know that Ayoub el-Khazzani was in possession of 300 rounds of ammunition and firearms to understand what we narrowly avoided, a tragedy, a massacre,” Mr. Hollande at the ceremony this morning in Paris.
He was known to both French and Spanish officials as “one of thousands of Europeans who had come on the radar of authorities as potential threats after traveling to Syria,” NYT writes of the “nearly insurmountable surveillance task” European security officials face keeping track of foreign fighters who transit in and out of Syria before returning home, possibly to plan new attacks.  
“We are now faced with unpredictable terrorism,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French security consultant and terrorism expert. “Terrorists henceforth will be choosing soft targets, those where there is little security,” he said. “And that’s why he chose a train — because there is little security.”
“With determined jihadists, 40 million passengers daily and 100,000 trains, securing Europe’s rail networks is a challenge unlikely to be met anytime soon, if ever, according to security experts.” Read the rest of NYT’s dismal tourism and transportation security forecast for Europe, here.

As China’s market woes continue this morning, sending crude oil below $40 per barrel, the Center for a New American Security’s Jerry Hendrix says now is the time for Washington to confront Beijing about its destabilizing expansion in the South China Sea. To simply sit and do nothing, tacitly allowing China to expand their role and expectations in the SCS, “invites future conflict on a larger scale,” he writes in Defense One.
Hendrix’ recommended course of action: The U.S.“should immediately dispatch an American warship, perhaps one of our advanced Aegis destroyers, to pass within 12 nautical miles of one or all of China’s man-made islands to demonstrate in an unambiguous fashion that they are not now, nor ever will be, sovereign Chinese territory…To be clear, rules of engagement should be issued to the ship’s commanding officers, but the strategic goal must be the defense of 400 years of legal precedent covering the free seas.” In short, “the U.S. Navy should come ready to ‘get up in their grill.’”
And such a confrontation should occur before Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first official visit to the U.S. in September, Hendrix writes, “providing the President with an opportunity to emphasize that free trade and free navigation are considered core national interests by the United States.” Read the rest here.
Meanwhile, the Pacific pivot is still on. Or “rebalance.” By any name, that effort continues, according to a new Pentagon strategy document that outlines Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the planned U.S. responses to them. Defense One’s Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber has that story, here.
Wanna catch a video of the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft? IHS Janes shares a 7-minute feature report on the patrol craft getting heavy use in the Asia-Pacific right here.

Lots of military posturing from North Korea this weekend after tensions on the peninsula flared to a “semi-war state” on Friday. The North on Sunday reportedly deployed special forces aboard nearly a dozen amphibious landing craft to a naval base about 37 miles from the inter-Korean border, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported last night.
Quick note on these boats: “North Korea has two types of air-cushioned boats. One is the 35-ton class Gongbang II that can travel at a speed between 74-96 kmph, and the other is the 20-ton class Gongbang III that can travel up to 96 kmph,” Yonhap reports.
The North also reportedly dispatched about 50 of its estimated 70 submarines over the weekend, Reuters reports as talks between the two nations that began Saturday continued through the morning. Seoul, which is refusing to end its loudspeaker propaganda blasts, has demanded an apology from the North for emplacing the landmines that maimed two South Korean troops almost two weeks ago.
And the U.S. and South Korea are mulling the option of “bringing in ‘strategic’ U.S. military assets, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said, without elaborating.” On Saturday, the U.S. placed its troops taking part in the 80,000-strong joint exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, on ‘enhanced status’ after a brief pause to coordinate artillery plans with Seoul, Stars and Stripes reported.


From Defense One

Welcome to the club. As the first female Ranger School graduates put on their tabs last week, a few women veterans in Congress took a moment to celebrate, and to remember their own struggles for acceptance. Rep. Martha McSally, the first woman to command a U.S. fighter squadron in combat, recalled taking down a sexist and “slightly pudgy” male fighter pilot by, essentially, running him into the ground. Defense One’s Molly O’Toole has that story, here.

What Iran Deal critics don’t understand about Iran. Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council writes that to Iranians at home and abroad, the agreement is a bet on the Iranian people, not on their suspect regime. That piece in Defense One, here.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Brad Peniston. Want to share The D Brief with a friend? Here’s our subscribe link. And please tell us what you like, don’t like, or want to drop on our radar right here at the-d-brief@defenseone.com.


Don’t look now, but the Obama administration’s plan to close Gitmo isn’t going so well, again. Pentagon officials are continuing to visit U.S. facilities that could take detainees from the military prison in Cuba. A scheduled drop-in today at the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C., follows a recent site survey of Kansas’ Fort Leavenworth. Unsurprisingly, two senators whose districts contain those sites already are speaking out. “Everyone in the vicinity would live with a target on their back if some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world were housed among them,” Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Tim Scott, who represent Kansas and South Carolina, respectively, wrote in a WSJ op-ed Sunday.
These two sites have been considered for years, and the arguments against it are nothing new. A symptom of the conflict at the heart of it all: Lindsey Graham — Scott’s fellow Republican South Carolina senator and a 2016 GOP hopeful — supports closing Gitmo but opposes moving detainees to his state. “If the detainees need to be moved, they must be moved to a maximum security location in a remote area far from heavily populated areas with vital infrastructure. Charleston does not meet that criteria,” Graham’s office said in a statement. So where, then? Good question; Graham’s office said he hasn’t specified a location.
When “cleared for release” doesn’t mean cleared for release. Meanwhile, Defense Department officials can’t seem to bring themselves to transfer even Gitmo prisoners cleared for release through a six-agency process. Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First writes about the case of sickly, 75-pound Ba Odah, held without charge for 14 years and ostensibly cleared for release in 2009. She asks at Defense One: why is the Pentagon holding up the release of Odah and dozens of others, and why doesn’t Obama step in? That, here.

In Syria, ISIS may have carried out another alleged chemical weapons attack. “Islamic State fighters fired more than 50 rounds of artillery in a span of two hours on Friday during the attack on the Syrian town of Marea [near Aleppo], the rebels and residents said, alleging some of the weapons contained a chemical agent,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
The head of the local hospital in Marea initially said “those injured in the shelling had what looked like conventional shrapnel wounds. But the hospital staff detected a foul smell coming from the injuries. Hours later, he said, victims began coming in with labored breathing, red skin patches, diarrhea and red, watery eyes—all symptoms of chemical warfare.”
This latest attack comes on the same day that U.S. Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, the chief of staff for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters preliminary field tests from an Aug. 11 mortar attack in northern Iraq revealed positive traces of HD mustard agent. Killea said it would take weeks to conclusively say whether or not mustard gas was used in the attack.
But such questions are shifting into the “moot” category. U.S. officials have confirmed mustard gas was used against Kurdish forces in northern Syria in late July, WSJ also reported Friday.

Lawlessness is sweeping through the previously calm southeastern Basra oil region of Iraq. “The erosion of law and order in Basra has been compounded by a flood of heavy weaponry and trigger-happy young men on leave from the front lines, many whom belong to mainly Shiite Muslim militias. Its 1.8 million residents must now rely on themselves for security.” More on Baghdad’s problems balancing still-growing security needs that span the war-torn country, here.
The continuing demise of the #2. U.S. airstrikes killed the Islamic State’s second-in-command last week, the White House said Friday. Al-Hayali, also known as Hajji Mutazz, and alleged ISIS media coordinator, Abu Abdullah, were both killed Tuesday near Mosul, Iraq, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“Al Hayali was reportedly killed at least once before,” and that was back in December 2014, Long War Journal reports, adding that, “Like a number of other senior leaders in the so-called ‘caliphate,’ al Hayali’s dossier begins in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. And details of his career were reportedly uncovered in documents captured from other fallen ISIL leaders.” Read that bio, here.

In Kabul, Afghanistan, a suicide car bomber killed 12 on Saturday— including women, children, and three DynCorp International contractors. The blast took place in the center of Kabul…late in the afternoon when convoys often go through downtown Kabul taking foreign and Afghan workers, as well as international military personnel, to their homes or barracks,” NYT reports.
“Witnesses said the bomber had been in a Toyota Corolla and appeared to have targeted a sport utility vehicle full of foreigners wearing civilian clothes but heavily armed.” No claims of responsibility have yet emerged.
For what it’s worth: Roughly 5,000 civilians in Afghanistan have died in the first half of 2015, “more than at any point since war started in 2001,” Reuters notes.

Back stateside, the Pentagon is poised to unveil a plan to get more of its officers into graduate programs at “top notch” universities, Military Times reports this morning. “The idea is that 30 percent of your colonels selected for general would have some sort of broadening assignment, something that takes them off the treadmill and puts them into some sort of intellectually or life-experience broadening situation” in the civilian sector, a defense official said ahead of the draft plan’s delivery to Defense Secretary Ash Carter by the end of the moth.

The A-10 continues to rise from an early grave. This time eight of the Thunderbolt II attack planes are headed to Estonia, The Aviationist reports.

Return of the CR? The stop-gap spending measure known as the continuing resolution is increasingly figuring into the Pentagon’s budget planning, and there are now fears that it could extend for a full year, Defense News reported Sunday.

Lastly today, meet the B-1 crew from Texas’ Dyess Air Force Base that dropped 1,800 bombs on ISIS positions, often returning to base with no munitions left. “In the military operations world, it’s called going ‘Winchester.’ …When a B-1 returns to base without a single bomb on board, the crew on the ground slaps a ‘W’ sticker inside the bomb bay doors to note the mission,” Air Force Times’ Brian Everstine writes after talking with the troops redeployed back stateside. Catch that one here.

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