CIA returns to drone-striking; How NorK runs underground nuke tests; Former DoD intel chief on insider threats; Lawmakers decry proposed Coast Guard cuts; and just a bit more…

President Trump has allowed CIA to resume its drone strikes on suspected terrorists, “changing the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the spy agency’s paramilitary role and reopening a turf war between the agency and the Pentagon,” The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.  

How the system was working when Obama left office: “The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike.”

The idea there, the Journal writes, was “to promote transparency and accountability. The CIA, which operates under covert authorities, wasn’t required to disclose the number of suspected terrorists or civilian bystanders it killed in drone strikes. The Pentagon, however, must publicly report most airstrikes.”

The CIA wasted little time, using “its new authority in late February in a strike on a senior al Qaeda leader in Syria, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, U.S. officials said. The strike in northern Syria on Mr. Masri, a son-in-law of the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, had been reported, but it wasn’t previously known that the CIA had carried it out under the new authority. U.S. officials are still assessing results of the strike.”

Adds the Journal, “Syria may not be the only place where the CIA is now authorized to conduct drone strikes. Earlier this month, a U.S. drone reportedly targeted two men in a village in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. The Defense Department didn’t acknowledge conducting the operation, as it typically would.” Read the rest, here.

As the Trump administration “tests” a new direction for the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is due to meet the president later this week, CBS News reported. But first, Trump will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel later today. Then Wednesday, on St. Patrick’s Day, Trump meets with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. More here.

North Korea warns of “merciless strikes” on the USS Carl Vinson carrier as the South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. militaries begin a large, two-day missile warning exercise, Reuters and South Korea’s Yonhap news report. “During the simulation exercise in the sea between South Korea and Japan, three Aegis-equipped destroyers—Sejongdaewang from South Korea, Curtis Wilbur from the U.S. and Kirishima from Japan—will detect and trace a mock hostile target fired as if by the North,” Yonhap writes.

About that threat: “If [the U.S. carrier group] infringe[s] on the DPRK’s sovereignty and dignity even a bit, its army will launch merciless ultra-precision strikes from ground, air, sea and underwater,” the North’s state news agency KCNA said. The state news agency added to its defensive bluster by alleging this weekend, “many enemy carrier-based aircraft flew along a course near territorial air and waters of the DPRK to stage drills of dropping bombs and making surprise attacks on the ground targets of its army.” More from Reuters, here.  

Get to better know some of the basics of underground nuclear testing—with possible North Korean implications—via this great Twitter thread from @armscontrolwonk Jeffrey Lewis. Using elevation data, and “a ton of declassified US data on spacing and burying nuclear explosions, as well as tunnel schematics,” Lewis and his team of researchers came up with a very similar outcome from another team of researchers from 38 North to arrive at a series of locations for recent underground tests. Again, you’ll want to start reading, here.

ICYMI: “North Korea already has two satellites that fly over the U.S. on a south-to-north trajectory,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday. The chief concern with that: the North could fix “a nuclear weapon onto a satellite, then detonat[e] it as the satellite passes over the center of the U.S., inflicting the most possible damage.” Or they could attempt an electromagnetic pulse attack, causing untold damage to the U.S. power grid. Read all about the anything-but-new scenario that still keeps some national security watchers up at night, at least on the U.S. coast closest to North Korea, here

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flies in a “small plane” to Asia for a four-day trip today, stopping in Japan, South Korea and China, AP reports from Washington, where reporters were left behind. More here.

In other news from the region, the U.S. military has decided to delay its permanent basing of special operations CV-22 Ospreys in Japan from this year until 2020, the Pentagon announced Monday. Stars and Stripes: “Yokota [air base] — headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force — was to have received three Ospreys this year…Eventually the base is supposed to accommodate a Special Operations Squadron of 10 Ospreys, adding 1,100 personnel to a population of 11,500.” More here.


From Defense One

The Military Value of the Defense Department’s Energy Efforts // John Conger: As the Trump administration reviews climate and energy policies, they should do it with this key metric in mind.

I Ran Intel at the Pentagon. Here’s My Advice on Insider Threats // Marcel Lettre: If I were still in government, this is what I would be telling Defense Secretary Mattis and the DNI.

WikiLeaks Dump Shines Light on Government’s Shadowy Zero-Day Policy // Nextgov’s Joseph Marks: The documents shed little light on how many unknown vulnerabilities the intelligence agency retains and how well it vets the damage they might cause.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1945: The RAF dropped the first Grand Slam bomb in combat. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


Don’t cut the Coast Guard, dozens of U.S. lawmakers tell the White House. “It’s nonsensical to pursue a policy of rebuilding the Armed Forces while proposing large reductions to the U.S. Coast Guard budget,” reads the March 13 letter, led by Coast Guard and Maritime subcommittee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and signed by nearly 60 other Republicans and Democrats. “Without question, OMB’s proposed cut targeting the Coast Guard directly contradicts the President’s stated goals and should be dismissed.” Defense News, here.

And ICYMI: More than 130 members of America’s foreign policy establishment denounced President Trump’s revised travel ban in a March 9 letter, writing that “even the scaled-back order will ‘weaken U.S. security and undermine U.S. global leadership.’ And they said it continues to signal to Muslim allies that — as the Islamic State and other extremist propaganda profess — the United States is an enemy of Islam.” New York Times, here.

Is a Russian airbase in Libya coming soon? Maybe, but it also may not be necessary since Moscow’s military has reportedly deployed forces to an Egypt air base near Libya. Reuters: “Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to U.S. concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.”

The known knowns: “The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States has observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Egypt-Libya border. Egyptian security sources offered more detail, describing a 22-member Russian special forces unit, but declined to discuss its mission. They added that Russia also used another Egyptian base farther east in Marsa Matrouh in early February.” For what it’s worth, Reuters noted they were unable to “independently verify any presence of Russian special forces and drones or military aircraft in Egypt.”

Possible motivation: “U.S. and diplomatic officials said any such Russian deployment might be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback with an attack on March 3 by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) on oil ports controlled by his forces.”

And right on time, those forces of Haftar have launched a new offensive on two of Libya’s “key” oil terminals—Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, AFP reports this morning from Benghazi. More, though not a lot at this early stage of the fighting, here.

In Iraq today, cloud cover and rain have slowed the Mosul offensive’s air operations and provided ISIS opportunities to renew sniper attacks, Reuters reports. ISIS also seems to be “carrying out what looks like an organized, fighting withdrawal: a core of fighters is holding out in the city using hundreds of thousands of civilians as shields, tying down and bleeding the Iraqi military in urban combat,” AP reports.

Iraqi security forces are moving into Mosul’s “old city” region, which includes the Grand Mosque where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered his speech in June 2014. It’s also seemingly the most well-defended pocket of ISIS resistance in the entire city, due to many alleys too narrow to drive some of the larger military vehicles through, forcing dangerous foot patrols and street-to-street clearance, Reuters writes.

Lastly today: There have been plenty of remote-controlled quadcopters attacking Iraqi troops during the Mosul offensive; but one thing we haven’t seen much of is unmanned ground vehicles. And Iraq is awash in them, or at least they have plenty in the developmental stages—as this display from a recent defense expo in Baghdad reveals. Among the models on offer: a mine-clearance remote-controlled vehicle, an armed RCV, a firefighter RCV, a hovercraft RCV(!), and a MedVac model.

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