Nuclear race in Saudi Arabia; $5B for Offutt, Tyndall repairs; New US bomb; #GeniusMachines, live; And a bit more.

It’s game on for U.S. nuclear companies drumming up business in Saudi Arabia. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry has approved six secret authorizations by companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia,” Reuters reported Wednesday. While the companies aren’t known yet, the announcement from Perry’s office is part of a quiet nuclear race between the Russians, South Koreans and Americans, “and the winners are expected to be announced later this year by Saudi Arabia.”

These secret authorizations, which The Daily Beast writes are “known as Part 810s, referring to a clause in federal regulations — allow U.S. companies to divulge specific details about plans for working in Saudi Arabia and certain information about the nuclear technology.” While word of approvals surfaced Wednesday, “The companies began seeking contact with Riyadh in November 2017,” TBD writes.

Ssshhh. The fact that we’re hearing about the six deals now is because “the companies had requested that the Trump administration keep the approvals secret,” Reuters reports, citing a document from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

One big worry among U.S. lawmakers: “sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” Reuters writes.

One of the companies could be IP3, TDB reports. IP3 is “a firm that includes former generals, diplomats, and energy experts.” Among those with ties to IP3: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Read on, here.

Extra reading:The US Must Build Saudi Arabia’s First Nuclear Reactors,” and it can do so carefully and lawfully, argued energy policy analyst Sagatom Saha, writing in Defense One back in July.

In case this all sounds familiar, the last wrinkle in this ongoing narrative developed in mid-February. Review those developments in our D Brief dispatch from Feb. 22, here.

What next? The Government Accountability Office will launch a probe of the White House’s nuclear talks with the Saudis at the behest of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. More from Reuters, here.

BTW: Pentagon brass talk “nuclear activities and fiscal priorities” today on Capitol Hill. Attending: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg; STRATCOM’s Gen. John Hyten; Navy Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe; and Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Clark. That gets started at 10 a.m. before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. Catch it live, here.


From Defense One

US Air Force: We Need $5 Billion To Fix Weather-Damaged Bases // Marcus Weisgerber: Without the cash, service says it will cut pilot training, ground planes, stop other base construction projects.

2020 Dems Are Light on Foreign Policy — But Will It Matter? // Katie Bo Williams: “None of these guys, with the exception of Biden, have the chops,” said one longtime Democratic strategist.

The US Military’s Infrastructure Crisis Is Only Getting Worse // Rick Berger: The weather damage to Tyndall and Offutt AFBs adds to a multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance that’s taking a strategic toll.

When China Convinced the US That Uighurs Were Waging Jihad // Richard Bernstein: In the chaos surrounding America’s War on Terror, Washington fell for Beijing’s ruse that the embattled Muslim minority posed a threat to the West.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1979, America’s worst nuclear accident — the Three Mile Island partial meltdown — occurred near Harrisburg, Penn. The incident began on Wednesday. “At the end of the weekend, an estimated 80,000 people had fled south-central Pennsylvania,” NPR writes in a retrospective. “Schools and businesses closed. Local banks started running out of cash.” Read more about “A New Push To Keep Three Mile Island Open,” here.


Happening today: Our second annual Genius Machines Summit at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.
Speakers include the CIA’s Andrew Hallman; Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan of the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center; IARPA’s John Beieler; the NSA’s Adam Cardinal-Stakenas, and more.
Catch the agenda and livestream (you’ll need to register first for the video link) over here.

In Somalia’s capital today, an explosives-laden vehicle “detonated outside a restaurant” near Mogadishu’s Wehliye Hotel, killing nearly a dozen people, AP reports.
ICYMI: A separate car bomb also hit the capital city less than two days ago.
Voice of America’s Harun Maruf has tallied a week of bombings in Mogadishu. That summary, because it’s easy to miss when you’re not living in Somalia:

  • March 21: Car bomb kills civil engineer
  • March 23: Complex attack kills 15
  • March 23: Two IEDs kill 2
  • March 25: Car bomb kills university staffer
  • March 26: Car bomb kills 14-year-old boy
  • March 27: IED kills 1, police commander survives
  • March 28: Car bomb kills 11

Maruf’s guesses as to why Shabaab appears to be escalating its violent activity over the past week:

  • “a) they sense [serious] lapses and want to build momentum;”
  • “b) they smuggled lots of bombs into the city lately and want to cause havoc;”
  • “c) also possible that they may have lost key figures in airstrikes and want revenge.” Follow Maruf on Twitter, here.

The U.S. has been using “a new generation of weapons” in Somalia, John Ismay of The New York Times reports in a feature piece for the Times magazine that uses a March 20 Amnesty International report for its starting point.
Known-knowns about this new weapon’s components: It’s called “a GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, a bomb that can be dropped only using a C.L.T.,” or, dispensers called common launch tubes, which “be fitted onto much of the Defense Department’s fleet of previously unarmed surveillance planes to enable covert attacks.” And that’s perhaps the most novel part of the system.
What makes the munition itself different: “By removing solid rocket motors and adding aerofoil wings to produce lift, these ‘glide bombs’ use gravity to reach their targets without making any noise.”
And at least some of the folks using it include, of course, America’s special operators. Ismay writes that “In June 2018, [manufacturer] Dynetics received a $470 million ‘indefinite quantity’ contract to supply Special Operations Command with GBU-69s.” A spokeswoman told the Times USSOCOM has ordered more than 2,000 of the GBU-69s already. Read on, here.

Yes, Russian troops are in Venezuela, and they’re not going to leave just because President Trump asked, the Kremlin announced late Tuesday. Russia’s military personnel now in Venezuela, the foreign ministry said, are there “in strict accordance” with the South American country’s constitution and a bilateral military cooperation agreement, AP reports from Moscow.
For what it’s worth: The foreign ministry spox “did not say how many Russia military experts have gone to Venezuela, but news reports indicated that two Russian planes delivered about 100 servicemen and 35 tons of cargo to Venezuela over the weekend.”
ICYMI: “The wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido was welcomed Wednesday at the White House,” AP reported separately on Wednesday.
Said President Trump: “We are with Venezuela. What’s happening there should not be happening.”
What is happening in Venezuela includes extended blackouts across more than 90 percent of the country for now the third consecutive day. It also includes people frantically searching for water, as well as shut down schools, offices and factories throughout the country. AP has that update from Caracas, here.
For your eyes only: Agence France-Presse has a timelapse of the sun coming up in a city with almost no electricity, here.

After almost 39 years in the uniform, CENTCOM’s Gen. Joseph Votel retires soon after a change of command ceremony today in Tampa, Fla.
Watch Votel and his Command Sergeant Major, William Thetford, discuss some of the challenges ahead in an 18-minute chat with St. Petersberg, Florida’s WTSP news on Tuesday over on YouTube, here. (Or read a bit from that chat, here.)
Or read Howard Altman’s exit interview with Votel for the Tampa Bay Times, here.
What’s next for the retiring four-star? “Votel said he and his wife are packing up and heading back to his native Minnesota. They’ll travel some, then Votel will decide his future. That will not include a run for political office, he said, or serving as a civilian in a job such as secretary of defense.” More from Altman, here.

The more you know: F-35 production in Turkey. “There are about 800 parts that Turkey makes for the F-35, and of them, very few are sole source,” an unnamed person told Reuters this morning.
Background: “Last week Reuters reported that the United States could soon freeze preparations for delivering F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, a move that would widen the rift between Ankara and Washington,” Reuters reports this morning. “At the heart of the matter lies Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to buy a Russian air defense system that the United States says would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp.”
However, “Replacing or finding substitutes for the Turkish components would slow production for a three-month period at the Lockheed Martin facility that builds the jets.” A bit more, here.
ICYMI: Go deep on this tension within NATO with Defense One’s coverage of Turkey, F-35, and the S-400, here.

Shooting down satellites (as India did on Wednesday) is gonna put debris fields in space, Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told reporters Wednesday during a trip to U.S. Southern Command in Florida (Reuters).
The problem with that? Experts tell Reuters that debris “that can collide with other objects, potentially setting off a chain reaction of projectiles through Earth orbit.”
Shanahan’s advice: Write some rules for space. “I think not having rules of engagement is worrisome. So, how people test and develop technologies is important. I would expect anyone who tests does not put at risk anyone else’s assets.” More from Reuters, here.
About India’s anti-satellite test: “This is a step backward,” Laura Grego from the Union of Concerned Scientists writes after a fantastic overview of anti-satellite launch details. India’s launch also “comes as delegates are ensconced in Geneva trying to come to some recommendations in a UN Group of [Government] Experts process about legally binding mechanisms to prevent an arms race in outer space. That’s a long shot, but seriously, we should be doing this with enthusiasm… There are norms, transparency [and] confidence-building measures, arms control measures that can reduce risks that  come from space activity, and which keep space usable for others and next generations. Progress is too slow.” Maybe Wednesday’s test will kickstart discussions in Geneva? Continue reading Grego’s review, here.

And finally today: Get to better know the Cheollima Civil Defense group, the folks that now appear to be behind the North Korean embassy raid in Madrid back on February 22. It’s a group “that styles itself as a government-in-exile dedicated to toppling the ruling Kim family dynasty in North Korea,” AP reports today. And it’s led by “a Yale-educated human rights activist who was once jailed in China while trying to rescue North Korean defectors living in hiding,” defectors and activists said. Worth the click, here.

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