Happy H-bomb New Year; US casualties in Afghanistan; CNO sets new course for USN; Saudi-Iran break threatens Syrian peace hopes; and a bit more.

It’s a new year and North Korea wants the world’s attention. The Hermit Kingdom captured headlines late Tuesday by testing what it says was a hydrogen bomb just two days before its leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday. South Korean news media spread word of what it said almost had to be a “man-made earthquake” that just so happened to occur a short distance from the North’s three previous nuclear test sites. “The assertion, if true, would dramatically escalate the nuclear challenge from one of the world’s most isolated and dangerous states,” writes the New York Times, adding, “Another test by itself would not be that remarkable. The North is believed to have enough plutonium for eight to 12 weapons, and several years ago it revealed a new program to enrich uranium, the other fuel for a nuclear weapon.”

A bit more on the North’s believed bomb capabilities: Some analysts told the Times “that although North Korea did not yet have H-bomb capability, it might be developing and preparing to test a boosted fission bomb, more powerful than a traditional nuclear weapon. Weapon designers can easily boost the destructive power of an atom bomb by putting at its core a small amount of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.”

International condemnation came fast to the reported test, with strong pushback from Japan, Italy, Britain, China, Russia, Australia and France. NATO’s secretary general called the test a “clear breach” of UN Security Council resolutions.

The U.S. State Department’s initial reax: “While we cannot confirm these claims at this time, we condemn any violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and again call on North Korea to abide by its international obligations and commitments. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and, until today, has done so twice since, but we have consistently made clear that we will not accept it as a nuclear state. We will continue to protect and defend our allies in the region, including the Republic of Korea, and will respond appropriately to any and all North Korean provocations.”

The message from Pyongyang, no kidding: “Let’s begin the year of 2016 … with the thrilling sound of our first hydrogen bomb explosion, so that the whole world will look up to our socialist, nuclear-armed republic and the great Workers’ Party of Korea!”

The near-term takeaway stateside: “The test is bound to figure in the American presidential campaign, where several candidates have already cited the North’s nuclear experimentation as evidence of American weakness — though they have not prescribed alternative strategies for choking off the program,” the Times adds.

What next? The UN Security Council is set to meet later today to discuss where to go from here, including South Korea’s reported pursuit of additional UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

An American special forces soldier died and two others were wounded Tuesday in fighting in southern Afghanistan’s hotly contested Helmand province. The skirmish took place near Helmand’s city of Marjah, where U.S. and Afghan troops worked to clear the Taliban from a space between Marjah and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah some 25 miles away. But when HH-60 Pave Hawk helos arrived to evacuate the U.S. casualties, one began taking fire and turned back to its base while another sustained damage to a rotor after reportedly hitting a compound wall.

“More than a dozen U.S. Army special operations soldiers and a rescue helicopter flight crew are ‘securing the crash site’ in Marjah, Afghanistan, taking cover in a compound surrounded by enemy fire and hostile Taliban fighters,” Fox News reported. “A U.S. military ‘quick reaction force’ of reinforcements arrived late Tuesday and evacuated the U.S. special operations soldier killed in action, and the two wounded Americans in the compound, according to a U.S. defense official. The crew of the disabled helicopter also evacuated safely, the official said. The rest of the U.S. special operations team remain in the compound to secure the damaged HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in an area surrounded by Taliban fighters.”

But U.S. officials could not elaborate much beyond this, with Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook engaging in some linguistic gymnastics to avoid saying U.S. troops are “in combat” in Afghanistan. The result, reports The Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef, is that America’s Afghanistan war has returned to “blood and shadows.”

Writes Youssef: “In some ways, the Afghan war has come full circle; it was special operations forces who originally fought to dislodge the Taliban there after 9/11. But today’s increased dependency on special operations forces has some defense officials asking how thin the U.S. military can stretch such an exclusive force through its seemingly endless battles with jihadists and insurgents. These specialized troops are a major part of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria, as well. A senior administration source tells The Daily Beast that there are reviews ongoing about the use of such forces; there are simply not enough of them to go around to all the world’s hotspots.”

The new Chief of Naval Operations sets a new course for the Navy. On Tuesday, Adm. John Richardson released his new strategic vision, laid out in the 8-page “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” In it, “warfighting and deterrence have trumped peacetime presence, capability has trumped capacity, and quality has trumped quantity,” writes Breaking Defense. Read on, here.

From Defense One

Saudi Arabia-Iran break threatens Syrian peace process. Mere weeks after the two countries backed a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution, their sectarian-fueled escalation seems likely to halt crucial cooperation on Syria. Defense One’s Molly O’Toole has the story.

Why are GOP candidates swooning for Saudi Arabia? The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart wants to know. “What the Middle East needs is not intensified conflict, as some 2016 contenders advocate, but a series of political compromises to help end the civil wars traumatizing the region.” That, here.

And while we’re on the subject of Saudi: Yemen’s war is nearly lost in the din of surrounding conflicts, write Quartz’ Bobby Ghosh. With another ceasefire ended and nearly 3,000 already dead, Yemenis are stuck in a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that has no end in sight. Read on, here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Get your friends off on the right foot in 2016 by telling them to subscribe here: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.

New Navy contract aims to equip hundreds of ships with drones, reports CNN. That’s a bit breathless; the actual news is a Dec. 24 contract from DARPA and the Office of Naval Research to Northrop Grumman to develop drones that take off like helicopters but have the range of fixed-wing aircraft. The idea is to put drones on the warships that lack large flight decks. Read on, here.

FONOPS, explained: Here’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s letter to Sen. John McCain about last October’s freedom-of-navigation transit by the U.S. destroyer Lassen past China’s fake islands in the South China Sea. Via USNI News, here.

Assad’s long stay in power may have just gotten a bit longer. “The Obama administration’s best-case scenario for political transition in Syria does not foresee Bashar Assad stepping down as the country’s leader before March 2017, outlasting Barack Obama’s presidency by at least two months,” the Associated Press reports this morning.

“An internal timeline prepared for U.S. officials dealing with the Syria crisis sets an unspecified date in March 2017 for Assad to ‘relinquish’ his position as president and for his “inner circle” to depart. That would be more than five years after Obama first called for Assad to leave. The timeline is based on a broad U.N.-endorsed plan that was initially laid out at an international conference in Vienna in November. Syria, according to that strategy, would hold elections for a new president and parliament in August 2017 — some 19 months from now. In the interim, Syria would be run by a transitional governing body.” More here.

In Iraq, Islamic State militants unleashed a “wave of car bombs” near the country’s second-largest hydroelectric dam in Haditha, the Washington Post reports from Baghdad.

What went down: “On Sunday, the radical Islamists began to step up attacks in Haditha, launching ambushes on checkpoints, arriving in villages atop armored convoys and engaging Iraqi troops in pitched battles on local farmland. Early Tuesday morning, Islamic State fighters, bolstered by what locals said were reinforcements from outside Haditha, staged a surprise attack on Iraqi forces in Barwana. They seized two villages before Iraqi troops recaptured one of the hamlets later in the day.”

Rising death toll: “Between two dozen and 60 Iraqi soldiers and others fighting on the side of the government have been killed in the attacks since Sunday, security forces and media reports said. The discrepancy in the reported death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.”

About Haditha, the Post writes that it “holds both symbolic and strategic significance. The district is one of the last government redoubts amid swaths of militant-held territory in the desert of western Iraq. In addition, its six-mile-long dam generates power for large tracts of the country, granting whoever controls it influence over much of Iraq’s electricity and water supplies.” Read the rest, here.

It’s official: Obama taps America’s special operations chief to lead CENTCOM, the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold writes nearly a month after the selection of Gen. Joseph Votel was first reported by Defense One’s Kevin Baron in early December.

“The move reflects Mr. Obama’s long-held inclination to counter extremist movements like the group calling itself Islamic State with small, highly capable forces like Delta and SEAL teams, rather than large ground units like those used in wars in Iraq in Afghanistan,” Lubold writes.

EUCOM, AFRICOM, NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM—they’re all getting new senior leaders soon. Names being tossed around for some of those positions include: “Gen. Lori Robinson, now commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, [to] be placed in charge of U.S. Northern Command” and “Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, now the senior American commander in the Republic of Korea, [could] become the next commander of U.S. European Command.”

Lubold also adds that “it’s considered likely that either Gen. John Paxton or Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, both Marines, would get the nod for U.S. Africa Command…[and] Last month, Navy Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd was confirmed as the next Southern Command commander.”

One does not simply use Google for Ukrainian-to-Russian translations. “Those who tried to use Google Translate to switch Ukrainian into Russian this week may have found an unexpected message in their documents,” reports the Washington Post: “The ‘Russian Federation’ turned into ‘Mordor,’ and Russia’s top diplomat was translated as a ‘sad little horse.’ A Google spokesman blamed the mixup on inevitable glitches in the translation algorithm, and promised a quick fix. No word yet on whether “little green men” becomes “orcs” or “Uruk-Hai.” Read, here.

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