‘Light US footprint’ in Libya; The war the next president will inherit; Tank deal exposes Saudi losses; South China Sea heating up; and a bit more.

How the American military’s “light footprint” in Libya is trying to flush out ISIS. A “small number of elite U.S. personnel, operating alongside British troops, in the coastal city of Sirte” are “coordinating American airstrikes and providing intelligence information in an effort to oust the group from a militant stronghold,” the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan reported Tuesday. But it’s a fine line on the airstrike piece, since the Post adds, “U.S. officials said American forces are not taking part in combat or even directly acting as spotters for airstrikes, and no Americans have been wounded so far.”

U.S. officials said “American troops were operating out of a joint operations center on the city’s outskirts” while “small numbers of U.S. military personnel would continue to go in and out of Libya to exchange information with local forces…loyal to the country’s fragile unity government.”

Why it matters, and what it says about Obama’s way of war: “The limited nature and size of U.S. operations around Sirte reflect the delicate balancing act the Obama administration must manage as it seeks to help allied local forces succeed while not undermining the country’s fragile unity government.”

Said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations: “As long as they keep this low profile…the risks both for the U.S. and for the Libyan government are quite low.” Read the rest here.

In Iraq, Sunni militias have joined the country’s security forces for the upcoming push into ISIS-held Mosul—despite Baghdad’s spotty record of doling out paychecks, AP reports this morning.

And in the broader counter-ISIS war, America has awarded at least eight Silver Stars for valor thus far, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Tuesday. “Four of these citations remain so classified that no information is available about them, despite repeated attempts to obtain them.” One flew half of his 10-hour mission while injured (during the July 2014 attempt to rescue U.S. hostage James Foley from Syria). More here.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military says a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in eastern Nangarhar province killed some 300 ISIS-aligned fighters about two weeks ago, Reuters reports this morning. “Obviously, it’s difficult to get an exact count, but what this amounts to is about 25 percent of the organization at least, and so this represents a severe setback for them,” said the U.S. commander of the war effort, Gen. John Nicholson, from the sidelines of a meeting with Indian military officials in New Delhi.  

Also in Afghanistan, a pitched battle is about to take place in Helmand as the Taliban have reported completely encircled the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, AP reports. “Army and police units have now been pulled back from checkpoints farther afield and brought back to reinforce the city…The fighting has closed all the highways leading into Lashkar Gah, forcing up prices for food and other basics inside the provincial capital…In an indication of the seriousness of the Helmand situation, senior Kabul officials, including the deputy interior minister and the deputy chief of the military staff, are in Lashkar Gah, along with elite Afghan forces, said Sediq Sediqqi, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman.” That, here.

Mapped: America’s 15-year war on al-Qaeda that the next U.S. president will inherit. It all began in Afghanistan back in October 2001, when Congress authorized military action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, writes Defense One’s Ben Watson. But now the war against nearly 75,000 extremists aligned in some form or fashion with AQ spans a minimum of seven countries. Trace AQ’s growth, here; or watch a video of what a decade and a half of American war against at least a dozen groups looks like over here.

Exposed: Saudi Arabia’s losses from its war in Yemen, thanks to a new U.S. tank deal, Defense One’s Global Business Editor Marcus Weisgerber reported Tuesday. “The U.S. State Department and Pentagon Tuesday OKed a $1.2 billion sale of 153 Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia Tuesday. But that’s not the real news. Turns out: 20 of those tanks, made in America by General Dynamics Land Systems, are ‘battle damage replacements’ for Saudi tanks lost in combat.”

This revelation was tucked inside a benign Pentagon announcement of the deal, “one that for the most part reads just like dozens of other arms sales approved each year,” Weisgerber writes. “The announcement does not even mention the conflict in Yemen, yet it gives a glimpse into this wildly underreported war between Arab states, the U.S., and the Houthis.” Read the rest, here.

One other quick one on U.S. arms deals: The U.S. just delivered about $50 million in Humvees, Howitzers and ammo to Lebanon on Tuesday, AP reported. Those new additions make $221 million in U.S. equipment to the Lebanese military in 2016—and bring the total to more than $1 billion since 2006. More here.   

Back to Yemen: The Saudis just intercepted two more rockets presumably fired by Houthi rebels this morning aimed at the Saudi cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait, near the two countries’ border, AP reports. Unlike previous ballistic missile launches from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia, the Houthis have not (yet) taken credit for the launches, Reuters adds.  

From Defense One

Afghanistan: it’s only getting worse. Is pouring billions more dollars into the country and keeping thousands of U.S. troops there the best way to keep us safe? asks Defense Priorities’ Daniel DePetris, here.

How not to plan for ‘the day after’ in Libya. Once again, the Obama Doctrine has encouraged improvisation over long-term strategy, writes The Atlantic’s Dominic Tierney, here.

China may hate THAAD, but there’s not much it can do about it, writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Scott Snyder. Beijing is blustering as the U.S. prepares to deploy a new anti-missile system in South Korea. That, here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 991, a Viking raiding party routed an English force at the Battle of Maldon. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.

Instability in the South China Sea. Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, says Beijing’s lack of transparency with its recent activity in the South China Sea—erecting hangars for aircraft on its fake islands and announcing joint military drills with Russia in September—are not making the region more stable, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

“It’s a very, very dynamic theater,” Adm. Swift said of recent developments in the South China Sea and East China Sea. “Things are changing all the time. So it’s difficult without a clear stated intent to ascertain exactly what that intent is, and that’s not a good place to be. That is not increasing the stability of the region.” More here.

Vietnam just moved rocket launchers to the SCS in what some analysts call “the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades,” Reuters reported this morning. “Diplomats and military officers told Reuters that intelligence shows Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months… The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days, according to the three sources.” Lots more on that to dig into, here.

And U.S. B-2 Spirit stealth bombers are headed to Pacific, “from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam,” Air Force Times reported Tuesday. “The Spirits will be in Guam at the same time as B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. An undisclosed number of Lancers and approximately 300 airmen deployed Aug. 6 as part of the military’s continuous bomber presence mission in the Pacific.” That, here.

Marine Corps’ recipe for the future: expand cyber and electronic warfare capabilities; improve defense against aerial bombings; increase its incorporation of small drones into infantry movements. Those are just some of the changes the Corps will need to absorb if it wants to maintain an edge against rivals like China and Russia, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday. More from Stars and Stripes, here.

Russian mercenaries have been in Syria for months, and hundreds of them have died—but you will likely never learn their names, Sky News reported Tuesday after speaking with young men who claimed to be contract soldiers for Moscow operating in Syria against ISIS and rebel groups. “These individuals told Sky News that they were recruited by a highly secretive private military company called ‘Wagner’ and flown to Syria aboard Russian military transport planes. For the equivalent of £3,000 a month, they say they were thrown into pitched battles and firefights with rebel factions — including Islamic State.”

Said one of the men: “Approximately 500 to 600 people have died there…No one will ever find out about them.”

A newly-released report from the British army says Russians would outgun the Brits in a flash, The Guardian reports (original article over at The Times, here). What the report, dated March 2016, said: “Russian weapons, including rocket launchers and air defence systems, were more powerful than their British equivalents. The report added that UK and its Nato allies were “scrambling to catch up” with Russia’s ability to use electronic means to hijack enemy drones and disrupt other military transmissions.” More here.

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