US carrier to South China Sea; N. Korea in ‘pre-emptive attack mode’; McCain blasts USAF chief; Navy drafts Iran ‘fiasco’ report; and a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

March 4, 2016

The U.S. Navy is rolling deep into the contested South China Sea, having just sent a “small armada” consisting of the John C. Stennis carrier strike group, an extra cruiser, and the 7th Fleet flagship. Besides the carrier itself, Navy ships in the area now include the cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay, the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockdale, and the command ship Blue Ridge, Navy Times reported Thursday, citing experts who call the move “a clear signal to China and the region.”

A spokesman for the Navy, naturally, downplayed the heavy U.S. presence in the region. “Our ships and aircraft operate routinely throughout the Western Pacific — including the South China Sea — and have for decades,” Cmdr. Clay Doss said in a statement. “In 2015 alone, Pacific Fleet ships sailed about 700 combined days in the South China Sea.” Read the rest, here.

China’s defense spending is going up—but it’s doing so at its slowest rate in at least six years, the Wall Street Journal reports. It’s “the first indication that an economic slowdown may be starting to impair President Xi Jinping’s military ambitions” as Beijing presses ahead with its largest military restructuring since the 1950s, a plan that calls for dropping some 300,000 troops and overhauling the military’s “Soviet-modeled command structures by 2020,” notes the Journal.

A Chinese spokeswoman put the latest increase at “about seven to eight percent from 2015, following a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit budget increases,” Reuters reports.

Context: China’s defense spending last year “was budgeted to rise 10.1 percent to 886.9 billion yuan ($135.39 billion), which still only represents about a quarter of that of the United States (at $573 billion),” Reuters adds.

North Korea is backing itself even further into a corner. Leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his military to be in “pre-emptive attack mode” and for his nuclear warheads to be deployed and ready to use at a moment’s notice, North’s official KCNA news agency reported this morning. The news comes “a day after the United Nations Security Council approved tougher sanctions aimed at curtailing his country’s ability to secure funds and technology for its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs,” the New York Times reports.

How the North phrased it: “Kim said North Korea should ‘bolster up (its) nuclear force both in quality and quantity’ and stressed ‘the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defence always on standby so as to be fired any moment… Now is the time for us to convert our mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into a pre-emptive attack one in every aspect,’” Reuters writes.

The standard caveat: “North Korea has often threatened nuclear war with the United States and has claimed to have built nuclear weapons small enough to be carried by missiles,” notes the Times. “Yet questions remain about its capabilities, including how close it has come to mastering technologies to build a small warhead and deliver it on a long-range missile.”

And a common response rumor from the South: “In Seoul on Friday, representatives of the South Korean and American armed forces on a joint task force met to discuss the possible deployment of an advanced missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad.” But as before, there’s little indication so far that these “talks” have progressed to concrete action. Read the rest of the Times report here.

From Defense One

How NATO can disrupt Russia’s new way of war. Bret Perry, an analyst with Avascent, offers a few things the West can do against Moscow's potent combo of special forces and electronic warfare. Read on, here.

Pentagon launches first-of-its-kind bug bounty program. The idea is to find and fix vulnerabilities before the bad guys do. Certain restrictions apply. Via NextGov, here.

Welcome to the Friday edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1941, British commandos landed on the Norway’s Lofoten Islands, destroyed glycerine factories, and seized Enigma rotors. Give your friends their own intelligence bonanza: this link to The D Brief: Got news? Let us know:

Danger close on Capitol Hill in the fight over the A-10’s fate. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., tore into U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh Thursday over the service’s plans to retire the fast, cheap, and low-flying A-10 Warthog.

The Air Force has put off the aircraft’s retirement this year but plans to again pursue it in 2018,” Stars and Stripes reports. “The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has become the most expensive weapons program in history and is now just entering service, was anticipated to replace the A-10 but the Air Force said Thursday it will not. Welsh, who struggled to finish his answers under McCain’s sharp questioning, said the service’s legacy fighter jets are more and more filling the role of the A-10 in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

The senator called the general’s plans “disingenuous,” but—as in McCain’s tendency—he did not stop there.

Welsh: “We don’t want to retire it, senator, but the Air Force has to get bigger to do all this, period.”

McCain cut off Welsh and said he had heard enough of the general’s testimony, S&S writes.

You know, it is really embarrassing to hear you say something like that when I talk to the people who are doing the flying, who are doing the combat who say the A-10 is by far the best close-air-support system we have. It’s embarrassing,” said McCain. More, here.

The Air Force plans to dole out most of the contractual bonuses to the maker of its new B-21 bomber, Northrop Grumman, “in the later stages of the $23.5 billion development phase, providing an incentive to control costs to taxpayers and stay on schedule,” Bloomberg reported Thursday.

James disclosed the fee structure—but not the amount at stake—for the first time during a hearing Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Chairman John McCain has criticized the contract as a bad deal, saying any cost overruns would be absorbed by the taxpayer. The Arizona Republican said last week he might seek language in the fiscal 2017 defense bill to block funding for the ‘cost-plus’ development contract.”

Added McCain: “If you have a cost-plus contract, tell me one time that there hasn’t been additional costs, then I would reconsider…The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.”

Bonus: Bloomberg also rolls up what they’ve been able to sweep up from the Air Force’s annual “unfunded budget wish list,” here.

Take your BRAC and shove it. The Pentagon wants, yet again, to shutter unused facilities on bases across the globe to save money—and, once again, Congress is not interested, Military Times reports. “Pete Potocheney, acting assistant secretary of defense for installations, estimated a base closing round in 2019 will save about $2 billion annually, and promised the process would be ‘efficiency focused’ and designed to cut military costs…Potocheney said that work is underway, but he expects to find about 20 percent excess capacity, based on studies from the department in the early 2000s.”

Thursday’s takeaway: “Lawmakers supported that concept — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., begged witnesses to call it a ‘military infrastructure savings commission’ instead of a base closing round — but did not offer any promises to adopt the proposal this budget cycle.” Read the Groundhog Day rest, here.

But there is one (formerly secretive) base in the Middle East which could use some extra cash to clean up an allegedly unhealthy mold problem: Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Air Force Times’ Oriana Pawlyk has been on the story, and you can read her latest here.

ICYMI: The U.S. Navy has wrapped its initial investigation into the sailor hostage “fiasco” with Iran. “Mechanical problems, communication breakdowns, and a lack of navigation training or preparation all played a role in the blunder, Foreign Policy has learned, based on interviews with officials and others familiar with the case.” The investigation has now been handed over to the Navy’s 5th Fleet commander, “Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, who oversees naval forces in the Middle East,” writes FP’s Dan De Luce. “The commander has 30 days to review the findings, decide if more investigatory work is required, and recommend if the crew members or their superior officers should be prosecuted or reprimanded. Other senior officers will then review those recommendations, culminating with a final decision by the Navy’s chief or deputy chief.” Read De Luce’s well-detailed report, here.

Two things: one, China has a quantum satellite; and two, it could change encryption “forever,” writes Peter Singer and Jeffrey Lin over at Popular Science. “The new Quantum Space Satellite (QUESS) program is no mere science experiment. China is already becoming a world leader in quantum communications technology; a satellite that delivers quantum communications will be a cornerstone for translating cutting-edge research into a strategic asset for Chinese power worldwide,” write Singer and Lin.

QUESS’s function is to test the phenomena of quantum entanglement. Operated by the China Academy of Sciences, this 500kg satellite contains a quantum key communicator, quantum entanglement emitter, entanglement source, processing unit, and a laser communicator. QUESS will relay transmissions between two ground stations (one in China, and the other in Europe) transmitting quantum keys.”

More broadly: “QUESS fits into a broader series of experimental quantum encryption programs which may be intended to address concerns over China's information security, particularly in the post Snowden era.” Read the rest, here.

Lastly today—you, too, can own an old U.S. military flamethrower! Marketed not as weapons but as “fun devices,” one can be yours for as little as $900. “Are flamethrowers legal?” CNN asks. “A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it doesn't regulate them because they are not guns. That means buyers don’t need to go through background checks from the FBI.” That’s reassuring. On the bright side, outdoor BBQ season is just around the corner…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston // 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. // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national security journalist for two decades, he helped launch, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

March 4, 2016