China puts missiles on contested island; Bomber protest produces more than one winner; Apple ups encryption stakes; Time to prep for Saudi collapse?; And a bit more.

In a first, China has deployed surface-to-air missiles on one of the contested islands in the South China Sea—despite months of protest to the contrary from U.S. officials.

“Two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system [have been placed] on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain” with overlapping claims from Taiwan and Vietnam, Fox News reported Tuesday. “It is the same island chain where a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed close to another contested island a few weeks ago. China at the time vowed ‘consequences’ for the action.”

What kind of system are we talking about? Very possibly “the HQ-9 air defense system, which closely resembles Russia’s S-300 missile system,” U.S. officials said. “The HQ-9 has a range of 125 miles, which would pose a threat to any airplanes, civilians or military, flying close by.”

The missiles arrived some time between Feb. 3 and Feb. 14, according to available satellite photos.

Suspect timing: “The deployment came as President Barack Obama called for the halt of the militarization of the South China Sea at the close of a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in California,” CNN reports. “A senior U.S. official told CNN that the decision to deploy while the summit was happening was a ‘further demonstration of China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo’ in the South China Sea.”

The reax from Beijing: You media people are hyping this up. More from AP, here.

Need a quick refresher on who claims what in the SCS? The Wall Street Journal has this.

For what it’s worth: This isn’t the first time that China has deployed advanced military gear to Woody Island. Beijing sent its advanced J-11BH/BHS fighter aircraft there as recently as last fall, Defense News reported at the time.

ICYMI: China carted out one of its anti-ship ballistic missiles in an exercise earlier this month. More from IHS Janes, here.

Elsewhere in the (wider) region, the U.S. flew four F-22 stealth fighter jets over South Korea in a show of force more than a week after North Korea launched its three-stage rocket to the chagrin of nearly everyone of its neighbors. More on that response here.

Start preparing for the collapse of the Saudi kingdom. That’s the advice from Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation, writing in Defense One.

“Saudi Arabia is no state at all,” Chayes and de Waal write. Rather, they argue, “There are two ways to describe it: as a political enterprise with a clever but ultimately unsustainable business model, or so corrupt as to resemble in its functioning a vertically and horizontally integrated criminal organization. Either way, it can’t last.”

In their conversations with military and other government personnel, they write, “we were startled at how startled they seemed at this prospect… Understood one way, the Saudi king is CEO of a family business that converts oil into payoffs that buy political loyalty. They take two forms: cash handouts or commercial concessions for the increasingly numerous scions of the royal clan, and a modicum of public goods and employment opportunities for commoners. The coercive ‘stick’ is supplied by brutal internal security services lavishly equipped with American equipment.”

So what should U.S. planners do from here? Read on to find out.

U.S., Russian military officials to meet Friday on that cease-fire deal struck last week. But before that happens, Russian President Vladimir Putin had to knock out a face-to-face meeting with Iran’s defense minister in Moscow to see his Russian counterpart on Tuesday. What brought those three together? Very probably the S-300 air defense system Russia is poised to send Iran’s way—a set of missiles the Council on Foreign Relations wrote last July “could tip the balance in the Middle East.”  

Speaking of the regional balance, Hezbollah’s leader said his troops will not drop their support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad any time soon.

Hezbollah has been pouring troops into the fight for Aleppo, “along with members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard unit and thousands of Iran-funded and trained Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere,” the WSJ reports.

Despite this, there appears to be no change in the offing for the White House’s strategy in Syria, as the Journal writes, “President Barack Obama, in a news conference Tuesday, gave no indication the U.S. has a Plan B should the cease-fire fail, beyond continuing to try to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a political resolution to the conflict.”

Turkey, meantime, is increasingly agitated by Kurdish militants taking advantage of a chaotic scene north of Aleppo to seize territory along the Turkish border. On Tuesday, Turkey’s president vowed to keep up his nation’s airstrikes on the Kurds to prevent them from forging any kind of stronghold on his doorstep. Adding to his anxiety is the fact that the Syrian army has advanced just 15 miles from the border, trying to seal off rebel supply lines. Reuters has more from the scene, here.

A bit of good news: Damascus has finally given the OK for UN humanitarian aid trucks to reach seven besieged cities in Syria. Nearly half a million Syrians are living in these isolated cities. More hereand more on the history of siege warfare below the fold.

From Defense One

GAO rejects bomber protest, making the USAF program the first major award in years to pass muster on the first try. That’s a win not just for Northrop Grumman, but Pentagon reformers, explains Global Biz Reporter Marcus Weisgerber, here.

There’s a reason Ted Cruz won’t say how much his Pentagon plans will cost. He’s calling for more soldiers, ships, subs, planes, drone pilots—in short, the fiscal conservative wants to spend an enormous amount of money. The Atlantic totes up the gigantic prospective price tag, here.

The NSA’s terrorist-hunting computer may have targeted innocents. A new report suggests that the agency has been using a machine-learning program to identify potential terrorists — and that it may have mislabeled thousands of Pakistanis. Quartz has the story, here.

Coming up: The civilian workforce that supports U.S. warfighters is aging. How will the Pentagon attract and retain the next generation? Leaders from DOD, USAF, and DLA will lay out their plans and outlook on Tues., Feb. 23, in a livestreamed discussion with Defense One Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston. Register to watch today, here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD in 1864, the Confederacy’s H.L. Hunley became the first combat submarine to sink a warship. Send your friends this subscription link: Got news? Let us know:

A judge has ordered Apple to help the FBI break into a terror suspect’s iPhone — and the company is fighting back with a call for a broad public debate over encryption. Get the details here, read Apple’s open letter here, and check Defense One later today for Tech Editor Patrick Tucker’s take.

Three U.S. contractors who had been abducted from Baghdad in January have been released, Iraqi officials said Tuesday. Few details have yet emerged as to what happened, who the culprits actually were, and how Iraqi security forces obtained the three. But you can read what is known, here.

The U.S. has dispatched some of its best aircraft to the the Singapore International Airshow. On tap: F/A-18E Super Hornets, an F-16 Fighting Falcon, an MV-22 Osprey, a C-17 Globemaster, a C-130J Super Hercules and a P-8 Poseidon. A little bit more on all that from Stars and Stripes, here.

At the show, the U.S. Navy is reportedly hunting potential new gear for its unmanned helos, IHS Janes reports. Details and competing parties are rolled up, here.

And finally: sieges in Syria. The centuries-old tactic of blockade and deprivation of resources, often to civilian populations, is playing a major role in the Syrian government’s effort to regain control of the country. By one count, 46 communities with a total of more than 1 million residents are currently “under siege to varying degrees, and pro-government forces are responsible for nearly all the blockades.” Is this still legal? AP: “International humanitarian law still does not prohibit siege warfare outright. However, restrictions introduced since World War II — such as a blanket ban on starving civilians — make it virtually impossible to besiege areas inhabited by both civilians and combatants without violating the rules of war…” AP recounts the history of the siege, and how it’s playing out in Syria, here.

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