Trump tweet bombs defense industry; Wants a nuclear arms race?; Berlin attacker killed; Airline hijacking; Aleppo; Turkey; CNO stopping by; And just a bit more…

By Kevin Baron and Ben Watson

December 23, 2016

Editor’s Note: The D Brief takes it’s annual holiday break next week and we hope you are, too. We’ll see you back in your inbox on Jan. 3. From our families to yours, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and please have a safe and happy New Year.

Trump’s drops an F-35 tweet bomb. The MOAB of tweets fell on Lockheed Martin late Thursday when the president-elect, in less than 140 characters, appeared to reopen bidding for America’s next fighter jet. “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!”

And with that exclamation point, the defense industry shook. Instantly, aviation reporters and experts dropped their jaws, then furrowed their brows, because there is no such thing as a “comparable” F/A-18 Super Hornet. Lockheed’s value dropped by $2 billion within minutes, Boeing’s rose, and everyone scrambled to write what option both companies — and the U.S. military — have. There’s so much to unpack. Yes, the F-35 is late and expensive. But yes, nearly every top US officer says at this point it’s a must-have. But yes, the US may need more F/A-18s before the F-35s are ready. Military.com’s Oriana Pawlyk has a good report, here.

Nobody knows more about the F-35 and it’s contracting saga than Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. Make it easy on yourself and follow him on Twitter, here. We had just posted an article with the headline “Trump is Now America’s Arms Deal Negotiator” before Trump tweeted on the F-35, so it’s updated.

Trump calls for a nuclear arms race. “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass, and outlast them all.” Well, that’s what Trump told Mika Brzezinski, Friday morning. He was clarifying this tweet he sent in Thursday afternoon: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Ok, so now this.

Look, it’s not an extreme statement. It’s pretty much on par with U.S. policy: keep the U.S. military’s arsenal as ready as possible while working diplomatically to reduce nuclear weapons. It may seem unnecessary with so much Putin worry, but don’t hyperventilate just yet. Obama’s Pentagon already was moving to buy new nuclear weapons, see?

Among the immediate “holy…” reactions to emerge, one of the smartest comes from the country’s foremost nuclear issue experts and nonproliferation advocates, Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione. Joe is a frequent Defense One contributor, and Thursday he posted a quick video worth watching explaining “This is how arms races begin.” Maybe Trump thought it was an instructional video instead of a warning for all humanity. Joe is no puff cake; this year he called out Obama for doing very little to reduce and reverse nuclear armament.

You know, watching Morning Joe Scarborough ask the Washington Post’s David Ignatius if Trump is serious, or if this is just another opening bid tough guy line, is pretty much where Washington punditry and reporting stands. You have to report the president-elect’s every word. But should you take Trump at his word? Because he’s backtracked from extreme opening views on a dozen issues since his election, including the muslim ban, the border wall, or that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Yet again, we tell ourselves: we’ll see.

Trump is now America’s top arms deal negotiator. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” one Wall Street watcher wrote this week, on how much PEOTUS is meddling in the F-35 and Air Force One deals. A U.S. president (in waiting) getting right in the middle of defense contracting, moving stock prices to devalue multinational corporations by billions with one tweet, questioning decades of military planning and technological development. The ripples go way beyond the F-35. Weisgerber has that here.  

Libyan airliner hijacked, diverted to Malta. 109 passengers have been released from a hijacked passenger plane from Libya that’s been forced to land in Malta. “The aircraft had been on an internal flight in Libya on Friday morning when it was diverted to Malta, 500 km (300 miles) north of the Libyan coast, after a hijacker told crew he had a hand grenade,” Reuters reports.

More from the scene: “Passengers walked down the steps from a hijacked plane at Malta International Airport on Friday, and Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted that a first group of 25 had been freed and the release of another 25 was under way. Buses were driven onto the tarmac to carry passengers away, and more releases were expected, with more than 100 passengers and crew reported to have been on board. Television footage showed no signs of struggle or alarm.”

What we know so far: “The plane was on an internal flight from Sebha to Tripoli and diverted by two hijackers in their mid 20s who claimed to have a hand grenade and threatened to blow up the plane,” the Times of Malta reports. “A total of 111 passengers—82 men, 28 women and an infant—and seven crew members were on board the aircraft which landed in Malta at 11.32am. All passengers are believed to be Libyan.”

About the alleged culprits: “The hijackers, claiming to be pro-Gaddafi group Al Fatah Al Gadida, had said they were willing to let all passengers go apart from the crew, if their demands were met. It is not known what their demands are at this stage. It is not clear whether this is an act of terrorism or the result of the bitter Libyan political feud. One German report said they were demanding the release of Saif Gaddafi.” More from this still-developing situation, here.


From Defense One

Trump is Now America's Arms Deal Negotiator // Marcus Weisgerber: His meetings and bombshell tweets with the heads of America's two largest weapon makers show Trump will play a role in hammering out contracts.

America's Cyber Security Dilemma — and A Way Out // Chad C. Serena and Colin P. Clarke: The network era has changed the rules of arms buildups.

Global Business Brief: December 22 // Marcus Weisgerber: What lies ahead next year, the Trump effect, the Navy, the F-35, Boeing and other big business stories of 2016.

After ISIS, Iraq's Militias Face Another Fight: Legitimacy // Jack Watling, via The Atlantic: The Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, face a post-war battle for influence that connects Tehran and Washington.

Made-in-America Weapons, War Crimes, and the Outcry Over Yemen // Aamna Mohdin, via Quartz: As the US limits some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, human rights groups present 'overwhelming evidence' pointing back at Washington.

Welcome to the Dec. 23 edition of The D Brief by Kevin Baron and Ben Watson. On this day in 1991, President George H.W. Bush extended diplomatic recognition to the Russian republic, speaking by phone with soon-to-be Russian President Boris Yeltsin shortly before Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post, dissolving the USSR. (Enjoy the D Brief? Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


From terror in Berlin to a shoot-out in Milan. The suspect believed to have been behind the truck attack Monday at a crowded market in Berlin has been shot and killed by authorities in Milan, Italy. “A police chief said his men had no idea they might be dealing with [24-year-old Tunisian Anis Amri] when they approached him at around 3 a.m. (2200 EDT) outside a station in Sesto San Giovanni, a suburb of the northern city of Milan,” Reuters reports. The officers shot and killed him soon as he pulled a gun “during a routine check in the early hours of Friday.”

How that played out: “He failed to produce any identification so the police requested he empty his pockets and his small backpack. He pulled a loaded gun from his bag and shot at one of the men, lightly wounding him in the shoulder. Amri then hid behind a nearby car but the other police officer managed to shoot him once or twice, killing him on the spot. Amri was identified by his fingerprints.”

Oh, by the way: ISIS released a video of Amri pledging allegiance to the group prior to the attack, “declaring [a] desire to avenge Muslims slain in airstrikes,” SITE Intelligence Group’s Rita Katz writes on Twitter.

Meantime, European investigators are looking into why Amri went to Milan, knowing only so far that he was once jailed in Italy for four years.

A bit more on his story: Following jail time, he was “ordered out of the country after Tunisia refused to accept him back because he did not have I.D. papers linking him to the north African country. He moved to Germany and applied for asylum there, but this was rejected after he was identified by security agencies as a potential threat. Once again he could not be deported because of a lack of identification documentation.” Read the rest, here.

Aleppo has fallen. One day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began celebrating the fall of Aleppo, Hezbollah has joined in, saying the West’s efforts to oust Assad “have failed,” AFP reports this morning.

The rebels’ response was to fire shells and mortars back into Aleppo just “a day after insurgents finished withdrawing from their last pocket of territory in the city,” Reuters reports. AP reports three people were killed and 10 others wounded in the rebel shelling, according to Syrian state TV.

About that withdrawal: “The last rebels left the city late on Thursday for the countryside immediately to the west of Aleppo, under a ceasefire deal in which the International Committee of the Red Cross said about 35,000 people, mostly civilians, had departed. Many of those who left the city are now living as refugees in the areas to the west and south of Aleppo, including in Idlib province where bulldozers were used to clear heavy snowfall on Friday morning.”

The Russian response this morning is to send in military police to help clear Aleppo, according to the defense ministry, per AFP.

After meeting with Putin this morning, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced: “[The] Operation aimed to withdraw insurgents from Aleppo is over, [and] all conditions for the start of negotiations on complete ceasefire in Syria have been established,” reads a lengthy statement on the defense ministry’s Facebook page, claiming “close participation” with Iranian and Turkish counterparts.

Some more numbers on the situation from Shoigu: “almost 34,000 people, including women and children, have left the eastern areas of Aleppo… 115 quarters have been liberated, almost 110,000 people have left the city… [and] approximately 9,000 people have been evacuated from there to Idlib. Insurgents have turned in more than 9,000 small arms." Read the full message from Russia, here.

Turkey briefly blocked social media websites Thursday after ISIS released another video showing they’re still as brutal as ever, this one showing the group burning alive two captured Turkish soldiers in northern Syria. “Turkish officials have not commented on the video. Syrian activists said the soldiers went missing in the area of al-Dana, northwest of al-Bab, in late November,” AP reports.

Also in Turkish news: Police “rounded up 31 suspected IS militants in Istanbul and were searching for 10 others wanted by prosecutors investigating the extremist group,” AP adds off reports from the state-run Anadolu Agency. “Turkish warplanes have meanwhile carried out airstrikes over the past three days on al-Bab, killing dozens of people. The IS-run Aamaq news agency said a Friday airstrike on al-Bab killed at least 20 people, and released a video showing infants among the dead being pulled from the debris. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday's airstrike killed 16 people, including three children. It said 88 people have been killed by airstrikes over the past three days.” More here.

Australian police arrested six men and one woman, reportedly foiling “a plot to attack prominent sites in the city of Melbourne with a series of bombs on Christmas Day that authorities described as ‘an imminent terrorist event’ inspired by Islamic State,” 9News Australia and the Reuters report this morning.

The group, “all Australian citizens in their 20s, were arrested during the security operation, code-named Kastelholm, conducted by about 400 police and members of the domestic spy agency… the suspects had been under close surveillance for two weeks, [Victorian police commissioner Graham Ashton] said. One of the suspected planners in custody was an Egyptian-born Australian and the others were all Australian-born of Lebanese descent.” The woman and one other man were later released without charge. Four face charges so far, 9News writes. More here.

The U.S. has a new ISIS-related problem: What to do about the growing number of ISIS sympathizers who now face prison time, since incarcerating them could make them more dangerous down the road, The Wall Street Journal reports. “Since 2014, more than 110 suspected Islamic State sympathizers have been prosecuted in the U.S. for a broad array of criminal activities, including making false statements to the government and traveling overseas to fight with terrorists. Roughly half of these cases have resulted in convictions, while the other half are pending… For the most part, judges are choosing to be cautious, although some have begun considering alternatives to prison… No Islamic State supporter in the U.S. has received a life sentence yet. Most defendants are arrested before they commit violence and charged with providing ‘material support’ to terrorists, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence… Of the 39 Islamic State defendants who have been sentenced so far, the average prison sentence has been 13 years, according to Fordham University’s Center on National Security.”

Worth noting: “More than a quarter of the sentences have occurred in Minneapolis, whose large Somali population has been a target in recent years for terrorist recruitment.” More on the alternatives under consideration—including “deradicalization” programs and halfway houses—here.

EXCLUSIVE: The U.S. Navy CNO is confirmed as January's guest for our next Defense One Leadership Briefing. Please SAVE THE DATE for Tues., Jan. 17, 8:30 a.m., EDT, when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson takes the state for in a live interview with Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron.

With Trump to be sworn in later that week, the Navy has a tall manifest of a wish list. So what does the Navy really want in 2017, and what are the chances that Trump's promise to "rebuild" the U.S. military includes major increases to the number of sailors, officers, ships or more? Richardson follows other Leadership Briefing series guests including Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

We hope you'll come or watch online. Stay tuned for more details.

That does it for us this year. Thanks for staying with us through one unforgettable 12 months—and here’s to a safe and prosperous year ahead for you and yours! We’ll see everyone again on Tuesday, January 3…


By Kevin Baron and Ben Watson // Kevin Baron is the founding executive editor of Defense One. Baron has lived in Washington for 20 years, covering international affairs, the military, the Pentagon, Congress, and politics for Foreign Policy, National Journal, Stars and Stripes, and the Boston Globe, where he ran investigative projects for five years at the Washington bureau. He is a frequent on-air contributor and previously was national security/military analyst at NBC News & MSNBC. Baron cut his muckraking teeth at the Center for Public Integrity and he is twice a Polk Award winner and former vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. He earned his M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University, his B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond, and studied in Paris. Raised in Florida, Baron now lives in Northern Virginia. // 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.

December 23, 2016

https://www.defenseone.com/news/2016/12/the-d-brief-december-23-2016/134157/