Iran releases US sailors; State of the Union, annotated; South Korea fires at NorK drone; ISIS has a new secure messaging app; and a bit more.

After 16 hours in Iranian custody, 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their bunk Riverine Command Boats have been released into U.S. hands, and are headed to their original destination, Bahrain. “There are no indications that the Sailors were harmed during their brief detention,” Navy officials said in a statement. News of the sailors’ capture seized headlines mere hours before President Barack Obama addressed the nation to tell everyone the state of the Union is as strong as ever and he’s got things under control (more on that below).

But back to the Persian Gulf: “The vessels were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain and were sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. A senior defense official told CNN the boats were in the area of Farsi Island for refueling, but it’s not clear whether they actually refueled—raising the possibility they ran out of fuel. Another senior defense official said no distress call came from the boats.”

There was early talk that broken navigation systems led the U.S. sailors to cross into Iranian waters; the Washington Post throws some weight behind that claim this morning, writing, “Iranian officials said they had determined that malfunctioning navigation devices were responsible for what they called the ‘intrusion.’”

A word on timing: “The run-in, which drew calls for reprisal from Republican lawmakers and candidates, comes at a sensitive time in the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Iran,” the Post reports. “Economic sanctions against Iran could be lifted as soon as this month under a landmark deal aimed at preventing the Islamic republic from building a nuclear weapon. A senior defense official said of Tuesday’s incident that there was no indication of hostile intent and that the American crews were being well-treated. ‘In some ways this has been very professional,’ the official said.”

Adds the Post: “Iran released several photos purportedly of the crew members, sitting around looking bored.”

The BBC reported that Iran insisted on an apology from the U.S. and that the U.S. obliged.

How it ended: “On Wednesday afternoon, the sailors traveled on their two boats to a rendezvous point in the Persian Gulf,” CNN reports. “They were escorted by Iranian boats, which turned back when they reached the rendezvous point in international waters. The sailors then boarded the guided missile cruiser USS Anzio, where they were undergoing medical checks Wednesday.”

Obama’s final State of the Union address revealed a man by turns confident, humorous and consoling—even as the nation reels from the rising threat of terrorist sympathizers in the U.S. homeland, writes Defense One Politics Reporter Molly O’Toole.   

“I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower,” he said. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia…And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality. It’s up to us to help remake that system.”

Obama also highlighted landmark achievements from the nuclear deal with Iran to reopening relations with Cuba and taking out al Qaeda leadership—and also took a brief moment to ding GOP front-runners for their criticism of the White House’s alleged lack of leadership on the world stage: “All the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

Obama also hit Congress for not authorizing new war powers to fight the Islamic State group, and vowed to continue his campaign to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, noting once more that “it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.” Read the rest of O’Toole’s report, here.

For what it’s worth: The address netted Obama the highest favorability ratings of any SOTU tested by GOP analytics and wordsmith guru Frank Luntz, he wrote on Twitter.

Catch a full transcript of the president’s address—complete with annotations from Defense One staff—here.

For an alternate take, check out retired Army Col. Ken Allard’s piece in Real Clear Defense, giving his read on “The State of America’s National Security,” including a few dire existential questions—i.e., “How can Republicans (or even hawkish Democrats) argue that we need to re-build our military forces without giving voters more convincing reasons to believe this is true – or how that candidate would spend our tax dollars on re-construction? How much, how long and what strategic choices will give us the best edge over our opponents?—here.

From Defense One

ISIS has a new secure messaging app. Facebook and other big tech companies aren’t the only ones who can create apps for encrypted communication. Technology Editor Patrick Tucker has the scoop, here.

Pentagon will investigate NSA crackdown on would-be Snowdens. The Defense Department inspector general gets lawmakers’ attention with a new probe into rogue IT employees. From NextGov, 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: Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know:

Shots fired in the DMZ. South Korean troops fired about 20 machine-gun bullets when a North Korean drone briefly crossed the border on Wednesday, AP reports. The drone turned back. It’s not the first time a NorK drone has entered the South’s airspace; in 2014, several crude unmanned aircraft were discovered on the ground. Read on, here.

A bit more on Tuesday’s deadly bombing in Istanbul: Turkey says the suicide bomber that killed nearly a dozen German tourists on Tuesday entered the country as a refugee from Syria and was affiliated with ISIS. “Turkish officials identified the bomber as Nabil Fadli, a Syrian national born in Saudi Arabia in 1988, who was fingerprinted in Turkey last week while registering as a refugee,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

The bottom line at this point: “Mr. Fadli’s apparent ability to enter Turkey, register as a refugee and carry out the attack without triggering any international terror alerts is likely to fuel concerns that Islamic State extremists are exploiting the good will of Western nations to sneak across borders to stage attacks.” More here.

Turkey went ahead and arrested three Russians as part of its broader crackdown on ISIS inside its borders, officials said Wednesday.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have advanced in the rebel-held northwest, the Associated Press reports. “The insurgents in the opposition-held area known as Jabal al-Akrad were collapsing after the key town of Salma fell to government loyalists late Tuesday. Salma’s fall marked one of the most significant military achievements by the Syrian military since Russia began airstrikes.”

And speaking of Russia—Moscow is planning to send a shipment of small arms to Kabul in February, WaPo reports. The justification: “Russia is concerned that extremist factions in Afghanistan could increasingly spill over the northern borders into former Soviet Central Asian countries were Russia has a major military presence.” More here.

More evidence ISIS is still at work in eastern Afghanistan: The group claimed responsibility for an attack today on Pakistan’s consulate in Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, Reuters reports. “A spokesman for the provincial governor said a suicide bomber had tried to join a queue of people seeking visas to Pakistan and blew himself up after being prevented from entering the building.”

The result: “Afghan officials said all three attackers and at least seven members of the security forces died during the attack by the radical Islamist movement which has so far avoided striking high-profile Pakistani targets.”

ISIS used its official Telegram messaging service channel to announce that three members wearing suicide-bomb vests carried out the attack, which it said had killed dozens of people including “several Pakistani intelligence officers… Pakistan condemned the attack but said all members of the consulate staff were safe, with one official slightly injured by broken glass.”

China’s second aircraft carrier will be based on an old Soviet design, but the country’s defense complex is racing to build it anyway as tensions rise in the region, analysts tell the South China Morning Post. The planned 50,000-ton ship will look a lot like the ski-jump-equipped Liaoning, a Soviet-made vessel China bought in 1998. That, here.

Business Insider adds a bit of context, as well as nice charts of the world’s carriers and China’s fake islands in the South China Sea, here.

Lastly: what was the last aircraft to fly from the USS Ranger, the aircraft carrier that served from the 1950s to the 1990s? Turns out it was a drone, launched from the decommissioned flight deck as the ship was towed to Texas for scrapping. Luckily for us, the drone shot video. Via War History Online, watch it here.

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