‘Major assault’ in Syria; Mattis wants troops in Iraq ‘for years’; What one Joint Chief thinks of Trump; The rising threat of kamikaze drones; and just a bit more…

Light on Raqqa. We have a bit more clarity on Wednesday’s “major assault” that opened a “new frontier in Syria,” as the New York Times puts it. “In a significant commitment of American forces, American helicopters ferried fighters across enemy lines while Marine Corps howitzers, Army Apache attack helicopters and American warplanes provided firepower for the operation. Army surface-to-surface Himars rockets, which are based in northern Syria, are also part of the mission. American Special Operations forces were advising the Syrian fighters on the ground.”

Certain details, including precise troop counts, were omitted in U.S. military officials’ description of the assault. “It could be 500; it could be a heck of a lot more,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the American-led command in Baghdad.

The goal: “to take control of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River near Lake Assad, the nearby town of Tabqa and a local airfield. An immediate goal was to take the dam intact, but the structure was still under the control of the Islamic State…and officials said that the fighting was intense.”

About the militiamen the U.S. brought along: “American military officials emphasized that Syrian Arabs made up 75 percent of the fighters in the Tabqa operation — while acknowledging that Syrian Kurds were also involved in the assault,” the Times writes, acknowledging Turkey’s long-held opposition to the U.S. use of Syrian Kurds—widely seen as the most competent force in Syria—to fight ISIS.

Worth noting: “Pentagon officials said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was informed of the Tabqa operation, as was the White House, but the assault was being carried out within the authority that has been delegated to American military commanders.”

Coming soon to the ISIS fight: “Col. Jonathan P. Braga, the chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Command and the former deputy commander of Delta Force, has been named as the next senior operations officer for the American-led command that is leading the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” the Times reported, calling it “another telling indication on Wednesday that American Special Operations would continue to play an important role” in the U.S. military’s war on ISIS. Read the rest, here.

SecDef Mattis’s prediction on Iraq: “I believe it’s in our national interest that we keep Iraqi security forces in a position to keep our mutual enemies on their back foot,” Mattis told lawmakers Wednesday. And Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. echoed that sentiment, noting that “the Iraqi security forces will need that kind of support for years to come.”

Military Times: “Both also signaled support for additional U.S. assistance for again rebuilding infrastructure in the war-torn country, which Iraqi government officials have estimated at $50 billion in coming years.”

Mattis, again: “It’s going to be an international effort, it should not be carried fully by the American taxpayer. But we should certainly be part of it.” More here.

Mattis also said he welcomes a new war authorization to fight the Islamic State group in Syria—not that anyone’s holding their breath, AP reports. And, “as far as committing any additional American forces, Mattis said he would have ‘to see the specific military problem. But I’m not at that point right now.’” More here.

The first U.S. carrier of President Trump’s tenure has entered the Persian Gulf. AP has more on the capabilities and mission, reporting from aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, here.

At the counter-ISIS meeting Wednesday in Washington, SecState Tillerson said the U.S. wants to build “interim zones of stability” for refugees inside Syria. “Rather than the ‘safe zones’ protected by U.S. air cover that the Syrian opposition and some allies have long demanded for civilians besieged by Syrian and Russian bombing in the separate civil war against Assad, Tillerson’s ‘interim zones of stability’ refer to areas cleared of Islamic State fighters by the coalition and Turkey,” the Washington Post reports. And “in areas being cleared of the Islamic State by the coalition in both Syria and Iraq, the United States plans to install interim local governance during an upcoming ‘stability phase.’”

He also said “the United States would look to others to pick up a larger share of an estimated $2 billion needed for stabilization and reconstruction this year.” Story here.

From Defense One

What One Joint Chief Of Staff Thinks of Trump // Kevin Baron: Do the generals have too much influence? I asked the U.S. Air Force’s top military leader.

Once Stealthy, Russian Hackers Now Go Toe-to-Toe with US Defenders // Joseph Marks: Once wary of being spotted, Russian government hackers now battle with their U.S. adversaries.

How the Rise of Electronics Has Made Smuggling Bombs Easier // Kaveh Waddell: New restrictions on flights from the Middle East reflect how just about anything with power can be turned into an explosive.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1983: President Reagan proposes the missile defense system that would become known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)

Attack in London bears hallmarks of ISIS. An assailant was shot and killed by London police Wednesday after a “man traced a deadly path across the Westminster Bridge, running down people with an SUV, then ramming the vehicle into the fence encircling Parliament. At least 40 people were reported injured. Finally, the attacker charged with a knife at officers stationed at the iron gates leading to the Parliament grounds,” WaPo reports.  

The Islamic State group’s official Amaq agency just this morning interjected, saying one of its “soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the violence. As well, the attacker’s use of a knife and vehicle is consistent with instructions by ISIS, terrorism analyst Rita Katz wrote Wednesday.  

British Prime Minister Theresa May: “The location of this attack was no accident. The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech,” she said Wednesday, adding, “any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure. Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal.”

A bit more on what happened, and possibly why: “The attack — a low-tech, high-profile assault on the most potent symbol of British democracy — fits the profile of earlier strikes in major European capitals that have raised threat levels across the continent in recent years. It was apparently carried out by a lone assailant who used easily available weapons to attack and kill people in a busy public setting.” More here.

Trace the path of the attack, via this graphics presentation from NYT.

Trump-Russia investigations take a turn. CNN: “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.” That follows Monday’s testimony by FBI Director James Comey that his agency is looking into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. “The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials.” Read on, here.

Meanwhile, the lawmaker in charge of Congress’ parallel investigation made headlines yesterday by saying that there had been “incidental collection” of intelligence on “U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” CNN: The chair of the House intelligence committee chair, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., “hurried to the White House to personally brief Trump on the revelations, after talking to the press but without sharing the information with Democrats.”

So what was Nunes alleging? It “remains a bit opaque,” writes Ben Wittes and his Lawfare team. “In his initial statement, he makes what seem to be bold and unequivocal claims, but he then spends the question and answer period significantly undercutting several of them.” Worth the read, here.

Taliban take opium-rich Sangin district in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the result of “a yearslong offensive that took the lives of more combatants than any other fight for territory” in the country, the NYTs reports this morning. “While spokesmen for the central government denied claims by the Taliban that the district had fallen to them, some conceded that the insurgents had overrun the district center and government facilities. But local Afghan government and military officials said there was no doubt Sangin had finally fallen to their enemy.”

AP: “The district’s police chief, Mohammad Rasoul, said the Taliban overran Sangin center early on Thursday morning…Speaking to The Associated Press over the phone from several kilometers (miles) away from the district center, Rasoul said the district headquarters had been poorly protected and that at the time of the Taliban siege, only eight policemen and 30 Afghan soldiers were on duty. Afghan security forces were now amassing nearby for a full-scale counter-attack in a bid to retake Sangin, Rasoul added, though he did not say when the assault would occur and how many forces would be involved.”

Meanwhile to the north in Kunduz, “an officer turned his rifle on sleeping colleagues, killing nine policemen,” AP also reported. More to their reporting, here.

A big increa$e: The Navy wants more money — up to $150 billion more over seven years — to help the fleet grow to 355 ships, the vice chief of naval operations told USNI News. The funds would buy mostly destroyers and attack subs. Read on, here.

Oh, and the Air Force’s next fighter jet needs eight times as much in 2017 as planned if its development is to stay on schedule, the service’s top acquisition officer said. Defense News: “President Donald Trump’s supplemental budget request for fiscal 2017 calls for a funding hike for the Air Force’s next fighter jet from $20.6 million to $167.8 million. Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said the money is necessary for the service to stay on the path outlined in its Air Superiority 2030 roadmap, which calls for the Air Force to develop a new fighter, called Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) or Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), by 2030.” Read, here.

To save money, the Air Force is considering retiring its F-15C, whose crews would shift to the F-16. Stars & Stripes, here.

Meanwhile, “the Pentagon’s director of defense pricing announced plans Wednesday for a major review of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program costs, with an emphasis on getting companies up and down the supply chain to find savings for the famously expensive jet.” Defense News again, here.

The U.S. Army wants to hold a short-range air defense shoot-off (which they call “SHORAD”) later this year, and it wants defense companies to bring their best gear in for a competition, ABC 31 of Redstone, Ala., reported Wednesday. “at the end of the Cold War, the Army had dozens of SHORAD battalions, using systems like the MIM-72 Chaparral, M263 PIVADS, which mounted a 20mm Vulcan gun, a towed Vulcan 20mm gun, and the FIM-92 Stinger, both man-portable (MANPADS) and mounted on a Humvee with a .50 cal. machine gun in the Avenger system. Those battalions were placed directly under divisions, like the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, and the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. Now, those few SHORAD units the Army has are in separate Air Defense Artillery battalions because during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, air defense was not a priority. Now, the Army is looking to increase their SHORAD capability, particularly in the manuever force.” Read on, here.

ICYMI: China’s indirect connection to the U.S. military. “Chinese firms have become significant investors in American start-ups working on cutting-edge technologies with potential military applications,” NYTs reported Wednesday from Hong Kong. “The start-ups include companies that make rocket engines for spacecraft, sensors for autonomous navy ships, and printers that make flexible screens that could be used in fighter-plane cockpits. Many of the Chinese firms are owned by state-owned companies or have connections to Chinese leaders.”

The problem: “Beijing is encouraging Chinese companies with close government ties to invest in American start-ups specializing in critical technologies like artificial intelligence and robots to advance China’s military capacity as well as its economy,” according to a new white paper commissioned by the Pentagon. Story here.

Also in China: New military bases to be opened by the lethal artists formerly known as Blackwater, The Nation reported: “Frontier Services Group (FSG), a company that helps businesses operating in frontier markets to overcome complex security, logistics and operational challenges, plans to build two operational bases in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Erik Prince, executive chairman of the firm, told the Chinese Tabloid ‘Global Times.’”

A spokesperson for FSG said the Yunnan base will be open later this year, while the Xinjiang base is anticipated to open sometime in 2018. More here.

The Pentagon is speeding up its efforts to combat kamikaze drones, WaPo reported Tuesday. “The effort to stop the aircraft is known as the Mobile Force Protection Program and is overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency…The program is focused specifically on going beyond using electronic jamming to stop unmanned planes and helicopters of to 200 pounds. Each company picked is expected to get about $3 million in the first phase, with the possibility of continuing on to two subsequent phases of work that are longer and more lucrative.”

The reasoning: “Unmanned aircraft are now ‘sufficiently inexpensive’ that the U.S. military must anticipate some of them may be flown directly into U.S. troops or vehicles as part of an attack,” according to program manager J.C. Ledé.

Along with the market dynamics of reduced costs and ease of access, another motivation for speeding up the program is the rise of armed quadcopters by ISIS and the first reported use of an unmanned bomber boat off the coast of Yemen in late January.

Adds the Post: “Ledé said he and his team focused on defending a convoy with important cargo aboard, because it is more complicated than defending a stationary target and because what is learned will apply in other circumstances.” Read on, here

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