Big US strike in Somalia; DoD draws up plans for Libya; What the candidates get wrong about future war; Albania auctions Soviet jets; and a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

March 8, 2016

Jackpot in Somalia. A mix of U.S. aircraft killed 150 fighters at a forested training camp of the Somali extremist group al-Shebab on Saturday—the deadliest strike “in the more than decade-long American campaign against the group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and a sharp deviation from previous American strikes, which have concentrated on the group’s leaders, not on its foot soldiers,” the New York Times reported Monday.

The strikes followed “intelligence [that] indicated that fighters at the Raso training camp were in the final preparations for an attack, potentially against a peacekeeping force known as the African Union Mission in Somalia, or Amisom,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Another [Somali] intelligence official said al-Shabab members training there were planning to attack a drone base in the region,” the Associated Press added.

How it went down: “The Shabab fighters were standing in formation at a facility the Pentagon called Camp Raso, 120 miles north of Mogadishu, when the American warplanes struck on Saturday, officials said, acting on information gleaned from intelligence sources in the area and from American spy planes. One intelligence agency assessed that the toll might have been higher had the strike happened earlier in the ceremony. Apparently, some fighters were filtering away from the event when the bombing began.”

Some recent history on the group: “The Shabab were once strong, then greatly weakened and now seem to be somewhere in between, while analysts say the group competes with the Islamic State for recruits and tries to show — in the deadliest way — that it is still relevant. Its dream is to turn Somalia into a pure Islamic state.”

News of the strike came as the Obama administration announced it would soon release casualty figures for those killed in U.S. drone strikes across the globe. “White House Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco announced the policy change in a speech delivered Monday to the Council on Foreign Relations, saying that transparency with the public was an important part of maintaining U.S. and international support for the administration’s national-security policies,” the Journal reported. “Going forward, casualty numbers will be released on an annual basis, she said.”

The scope of the report: “The assessment, which is due in the coming weeks, will cover combatant and noncombatant deaths dating back to the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009.”

Monaco: “We know that not only is greater transparency the right thing to do, it is the best way to maintain the legitimacy of our counterterrorism actions and the broad support of our allies.”

The Pentagon has delivered its plan to counter ISIS in Libya, and—surprise—it’s heavy on airstrikes. “Airstrikes against as many as 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country would aim to deal a crippling blow to the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to battle Islamic State fighters on the ground. Allied bombers would carry out additional airstrikes to support the militias on the ground,” the NYT reports this morning.

It’s really just a plan that’s been pitched at this point, not one the White House has greenlit just yet, writes the Times. “Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined this option to President Obama’s top national security advisers at a so-called principals meeting on Feb. 22. But the plan is not being actively considered, at least for now, while the Obama administration presses ahead with a diplomatic initiative to form a unity government from rival factions inside Libya, administration officials said.”

Cause for concern: “The scope of the military plan surprised some senior administration officials, and it drew warnings from some State Department officials that such airstrikes, if not coordinated properly, could jeopardize the United Nations-led effort to forge a unity government from Libya’s fractious political actors.”

What’s going on? “The reason so many military officials were willing to discuss classified war planning, including the option of aggressive airstrikes, was to show that the administration was taking the ISIS threat in Libya seriously,” the Times reports. “At the same time, though, the administration hopes to show that it is exercising restraint for the time being to help the political process succeed. The Pentagon produced the options at the White House’s request, but did not offer any formal recommendations, officials said.” Read the rest, here.

After three years leading CENTCOM, Gen. Lloyd Austin III steps down soon, leaving behind the “uncertain future of the Iraq and Syria conflicts” as well as “sharply deteriorating security in Afghanistan and a grinding insurgent war in Yemen — all part of a command that stretches from Egypt to Pakistan,” The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan reports.

The reserved, intensely private Austin was seen as an alternative to high-profile generals, such as Stanley McChrystal or David Petraeus, who created friction inside the Obama administration by publicly airing their views, which often differed from those of civilian leaders,” Ryan writes. “But it is Austin’s discipline in quietly working within parameters set by the White House that makes his tenure so difficult to evaluate and, critics argue, may have contributed to an overly timid response to the Islamic State.”

But Austin’s critics “have faulted him for not moving earlier and more effectively to push the kinds of measures later deemed necessary by the White House. Officials said that Austin’s desire to avoid civilian casualties was a major factor in his decision-making.”

One common gripe: “His reluctance to speak in public about his views or the operations he oversees. One official described it as a blind spot. ‘Part of his role at that level is to carry policy water and to communicate policy decisions,’ the official said. Even within government, he has been reticent to share his personal views outside a small cadre of advisers, officials said. He is so private that even senior aides know little about the basic facts of his life.” But you can find out a few more of those facts, here.

From Defense One

Let Russia’s planes keep flying over the U.S., just like Ike wanted, says Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon. Senior Pentagon officials are starting to object to an agreement that has served the United States well for more than a decade — and their objections may have more to do with Pentagon dithering than Moscow’s misbehavior. Read on, here.

What the 2016 presidential candidates get wrong about the future of war. They fail, they lack, they misunderstand, they pander, they don't get, and they just don't know national security. New America’s Peter W. Singer

rolls up the judgments from the Future of War roster of experts, here.

China is about to get even better at predicting dissent. Turns out, “Minority Report” should have been set in Beijing. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports.

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1862, the Confederacy launches the ironclad CSS Virginia, the former USS Merrimack. Send your friends The D Brief: Got news? Let us know:

More drones are coming. Over the next 18 months, the U.S. Air Force plans to increase its number of remotely-piloted aircraft flights to 70 from its current peak of 60, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Monday at the Pentagon. “To meet the increasing demand, the Air Force is attempting to train new pilots and find new places to base them,” Defense News reported. “The service is also looking at standing up a new wing somewhere besides that would be separate from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.”

Also in the pipeline is “a decision by the Pentagon to increase department-wide caps to 90 per day. Defense contractors would fly 10 caps a day using government-owned RPAs and would focus only on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The rest of the flights would be provided by the Army, though Welsh said he did not know the timetable for that service’s increase.” More here.

Pulling back more of the curtain on the B-21. The Air Force continues to keep details about its new stealth bomber close to the vest, mostly so China and Russia can’t connect the dots of what’s happening. But the Air Force yesterday chose to announce who is working on the project with Northrop Grumman, which won the $80 billion deal last year. Most notably, Pratt & Whitney will make the plane’s engines. (In the F-35 program, engine costs accounts for about 17 percent of the total price tag.)

But we kinda-sorta knew Pratt —  which makes the B-52’s engines — was on the team. Back when the Pentagon announced the deal, the company issued this statement: “Pratt & Whitney congratulates Northrop Grumman for their selection on this very important program. P&W declines to comment on any other questions regarding the Long Range Strike Bomber program.”

Who else will help make the new bomber? BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace, Janicki Industries, Orbital ATK, Rockwell Collins and Spirit Aerosystem. Those companies will work on the “will work on airframe or mission systems,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a briefing on Monday.

Freedom-of-navigation in the SCS has limits, China says—in what Stars and Stripes calls “a thinly veiled rebuke aimed at Navy movements in the South China Sea.”

I want to remind some people that the freedom of navigation doesn’t give them a license to do whatever they want,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this morning. “If someone wants to muddy the waters in the South China Sea and to destabilize Asia, China would not agree to it, and I think the overwhelming majority of countries in the region would not allow that to happen.”

Wang repeated China’s denials that it was militarizing the South China Sea, “because other countries had done so first,” Stripes reports. “None of the other island claimants are known to have deployed anywhere near the armament that China has within the Paracel and Spratly island chains, according to satellite imagery. Wang might have been referring to Navy and Air Force assets, which have transited the global commons in Southeast Asia regularly since the end of World War II.” That, here.

The U.S. Air Force: We will continue to fly daily missions over the SCS. That from Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, who “also urged other nations to exercise their freedom to fly and sail in international airspace and waters claimed by China in the South China Sea ‘or risk losing it throughout the region,’” AP reported. “As part of U.S. plans to increase its military presence in the Pacific, Robinson said discussions were underway with the Australian military to rotate U.S. bombers through the northern Australian air force bases at Darwin and Tindal…U.S. Marines already rotate through Darwin in a sign of an increasingly close military bilateral alliance that riles China, Australia's most important trade partner.”

How much does the Pentagon spend on “building partner capacity”? Some $122 billion since 2001. And for something that gets so much money and attention, the effort to improve foreign militaries and police forces isn’t well documented, Politico reports: “On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing to examine these programs. This oversight is overdue.” Read on, here.

Oh, and by the way: Veep Joe Biden is in Israel this week to patch up frayed ties and negotiate “a new multibillion-dollar, 10-year military-aid package.” Washington Post, here.

Russia is about to hand its military its biggest cut in 16 years. Falling oil prices and sanctions couldn’t protect the ruble, ushering the biggest decline in defense spending since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. “The cut represents a victory for the finance ministry, which has said Russia can no longer afford the multi-billion-dollar revamp of the armed forces and called for a 10 percent spending reduction across ministries,” Reuters reports. “The Russian economy shrank by 3.7 percent last year and is expected to decline by another 1 percent this year.” That, here.

Lastly today: Wanna get your hands on a Soviet-era fighter jet? Starting bids begin at almost $9,000—and demand could push that price up, the AP reports from Rinasi AB in south-central Albania: “The 40 obsolete Soviet and Chinese-made aircraft up for sale once roared over what was Europe's most exclusive airspace… Now a NATO member, Albania is auctioning off the rusting jets to pay for modernizing its military and to save space in its air bases. The Socialist government says it has received strong interest from aviation collectors and museums abroad — so much that it pushed back the initial auction date and is considering raising the starting bids, first set at 1.1 million to 1.9 million leks ($8,600-14,800).” Lots of great details in this story, which you can read for yourself here.

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 8, 2016