Trump sends a U.S. aircraft carrier toward Iran, and John Bolton shakes his fist with more of the bellicose rhetoric we’ve come to expect from this White House. The U.S. Abraham Lincoln, her carrier strike group, and a bomber task force are on the way to U.S. Central Command’s area of operations. But is it news?
White House National Security Adviser John Bolton seized the messaging moment with a statement Sunday evening saying the action was, “In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,”…in order… “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.” (Remember, Trump controversially designated the IRGC as official terrorists, last month; and Iran, in turn, designated the U.S. military in the Middle East terrorists from Tehran’s POV.)
Advises former Pentagon official Andrew Exum: “Everyone needs to calm down.” Instead, he recommends this approach from RAND’s Becca Wasser, who tweets: “The US routinely deploys carriers to the Gulf as a show of force intended to deter Iran. DoD recently varied carrier presence in a bid to be operationally unpredictable & chances are this deployment has been long-planned. WH message is piggybacking on planned ops to make a point.”
Related, here’s a new approach to countering Iran: “Establish two tailored working groups to produce common threat assessments and develop joint strategies,” per Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas Heras and Kaleigh Thomas, of CNAS, in this report entitled, “Slow and Steady: Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare,”
At the “strategic level,” the U.S. should focus one group on the Qods Force and another “on Salafi-jihadist extremists.”
And on the “operational level,” they write, the U.S. ought to “Focus on individually working with Arab partners to help improve their special operations forces, which are central to countering irregular warfare, and conduct joint training and military exercises to improve joint capabilities and cooperation.” (Pentagon leaders have called for that exact thing for some time, however.) Check out the full 36-page report for yourself, here.
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Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Kevin Baron and Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! SUBSCRIBE here. On this day in 1937, the Nazi’s Hindenburg Airship burst into flames after crossing the Atlantic and attempting to land at Lakehurst, N.J. Thirty-six passengers and crew died in the explosion that day, immortalized by Herb Morrision’s “Oh, the humanity,” famous radio call, for Chicago’s WLS radio.
North Korea again launched — something — and it’s likely not big enough to carry a nuclear warhead, nor even a missile, but it comes just days before Trump’s top envoy is scheduled for more talks in the region.
Here’s what the projectile launch looked like by Planet Labs’ fortuitous cameras orbiting the Earth. CEO Martyn Williams shared the rare image Saturday evening, mere hours after Pyongyang launched what appeared to be a short-range projectile (maybe not a missile, per se) from its Hodo Peninsula, on the Hermit Kingdom’s southeastern coast.
Worth noting: “North Korea’s known nuclear warhead designs are too large to be fitted comfortably onto whatever short-range projectiles were fired off on Saturday,” Ankit Panda reported for The Daily Beast this weekend.
North Korea broke a 522-day streak with Saturday’s launch, Panda wrote, adding “it’s hard to be surprised” by this latest test. That’s due, at least in part, to “the fact that the United States and South Korea had pushed ahead with military exercises and that the U.S. conducted an apparently successful missile defense test against a target that was designed to simulate an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) of the sort that might be launched by North Korea in a war.”
Kim warned in an April speech “corresponding acts” would follow from Pyongyang should the U.S. continue to pursue what Kim called America’s “hostile policy” toward North Korea. Those U.S. actions, Kim said, “seriously rattle us.” And so, he continued rather poetically, “As wind is bound to bring waves, the U.S. open hostile policy toward the DPRK will naturally bring our corresponding acts.”
President Trump’s reax, via Twitter: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
One concerned U.S. nuclear scientist’s summary of Trump’s reax: “Lalalalalala I Can’t Hear You.” Cheryl Rofer explains why this is quite dangerous, and why this approach is working so far for Trump, here.
So what now? “None of this portends well for the course of diplomacy this year,” Panda writes, “but for the moment it does not shut any doors.” And that’s pretty much the message U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo conveyed on Sunday news shows, as The Guardian reported. Further, according to Ankit Panda, “U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun is bound for Seoul and Tokyo in the coming days, where he’ll coordinate with allies.” So stay tuned.
The U.S. Navy sent two guided-missile destroyers through the South China Sea in what was just an “innocent passage… to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” said Seventh Fleet spox Commander Clay Doss, Reuters reports this morning.
The ships involved: USS Preble (DDG 88), and USS Chung Hoon (DDG 93).|
China’s reax: You “infringed upon [our] sovereignty, and damaged the peace, security and good order of the relevant seas. China is strongly dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposed to it,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said today in Beijing.
Wanna review the big-picture dynamics, the history of tension, and a possible look at the future of U.S.-China relations when it comes to operations in the South China Sea? We’ve got you covered in 43 minutes, right here.
One more thing on China: It has no interest in any three-way talks (with the U.S. and Russia) on nuclear arms control — as Trump teased in a Friday tweet after speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone — Beijing’s foreign ministry said today. More via Reuters, here.
Also, Japan makes history: “For the first time, Japan deployed its military personnel abroad to join a multinational force not connected to the UN,” RAND’s Jeffrey Hornung wrote in a new analysis.
Why that deployment matters: “This is a small, albeit visible, demonstration that Tokyo is changing how it uses its Self-Defense Forces.”
In Afghanistan, an assembly of 3,200 people demanded an immediate cease-fire and an “orderly” exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported Friday from Kabul. The demands — which also include moving the Taliban’s diplomatic office from Qatar to Afghanistan — are the product of a four-day meeting called by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last week.
About the cease-fire, it ought to start at Ramadan (which began yesterday), and remain in place “across the country.”
For what it’s worth, Ghani vowed to make the recommendations “a major part of government policy,” the Post writes. Ghani also “said that he would order a truce if the Taliban did the same and that he would order the release of scores of Taliban prisoners.”
Um, we’re not really cease-firing, according to one of the Taliban’s spokesmen, Zabiullah Mujahid, who maintains a Twitter account. His response: “forget the idea of us putting down our arms,” he tweeted, and “stop repeating failed strategies” to prop up “the decaying Kabul administration.” Read on at the Post, here.
Happening Wednesday: President Trump drops by Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, the White House announced this morning. Why? One reason: money. Recall our reporting that Trump has asked Congress for a huge increase to the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account, and in a cheeky new twist requested a $9.2 billion in hurricane and disaster-related funds inside of that war slush fund. Congress has howled at the Pentagon for using one budgetary trick to hide another one. But the reality is: Tyndall needs help.
The latest on recovery efforts for Tyndall AFB: “Hurricane-Torn Air Force Base’s Recovery Stalls as Congress Lingers on Disaster Aid,” in this Wall Street Journal update from Saturday.
“Nearly every structure on Tyndall Air Force base was damaged and roughly one-third were destroyed” by Hurricane Michael in October.
The problem now: “Progress on some of the repairs is now on hold, however, as Congress has yet to pass a disaster-aid package for the areas hit by Hurricane Michael.”
The even bigger problem for the country? “Funding for Tyndall Air Force base is just one piece of collateral damage in the monthslong impasse on a multibillion dollar disaster-aid package in Washington. Areas across the country—including Florida, Texas and North Carolina—hit by flooding, wildfires and other natural disasters in 2018 and 2019 have gone months without help from Congress.” More behind the paywall, here.
Want to learn more on how climate change will challenge the U.S. military across the globe in our deep-dive? Click our special edition podcast from March, here.
And finally this morning, we’re pretty sure it’s still against military regs to walk and talk with your cell phone. But even if that rule changed since one of your D Brief-ers wore the uniform, consider the newest (parody) gadget on the market, Lookout — “A phone camera that looks up, so you can keep looking down,” according to its mischievous creator, Alex Cornell.
Alex produced a one-minute, tongue-in-cheek video to tell you all about the device, how it works, and why the idea behind this parody resonates in this Information Age, here.