Iran downs US drone; Europe shows off new arms; Esper to attend NATO meeting; And a bit more.

Iran shot a U.S. drone out of the sky, and now it’s reportedly somewhere down in the waters of the Hormuz Strait.

What we know so far: The U.S. military flew a surveillance drone over the Strait and a little too close to Iran around midnight local time, so close that Iranian forces felt they were in the right to shoot it down with a surface-to-air missile. U.S. Central Command officials say the RQ-4A drone remained in international airspace; Iranian officials allege it was in their airspace.

CENTCOM is not happy over the differing portrayals, either. “Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” the command said in a statement this morning. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”

For its part, Iranian state-run media says the U.S. drone flew “with its identification transponders off in breach of all international aviation rules… from the Strait of Hormuz towards Iran’s port city of Chabahar.”

And about its flight path: “While returning towards west of the Strait of Hormuz,” Iran’s PressTV says, “the drone violated Iran’s territorial airspace and began gathering intelligence and spying.” It was shot “near the Kouh-e Mobarak region” falling in the Ras al-Shir area “in Iran’s territorial waters.”

Unusual data points from today’s incident:

  • The U.S. drone usually flies at an altitude of 45,000 to 50,000 feet, the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock tweeted, which suggests powerful surface-to-air missiles, or a lower-than-usual flight path. That could turn attention today to Russian-made S-300 air defense systems that Iran possesses.
  • Iran, however, says it wasn’t an S-300 system that shot down the drone. It was, according to state-run Tasnim News Agency, “shot by Iran’s homegrown air defense missile system ‘Khordad-3rd.’”
  • The U.S. drone costs around $100 million, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reminded us this morning on Twitter.

More from Marcus: The “BAMS-D drone is an early version of the Air Force Global Hawk that’s now used by the Navy. At more than $100 million a pop, that’s more than an F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.”

Iran’s military reax: The downing sends “a clear message” to America; and Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war,” Revolutionary Guard Commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, said this morning according to the Associated Press’s developing updates page.

One interpretation of Iran’s motives, via Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Iran-watchers at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: “Ultimately, the [shootdown] signals that Iran is becoming increasingly comfortable with the assumption that the Trump administration will only respond with sanctions.”

What’s more, he writes, “Iran [appears to be] banking on the collective impression its recent military escalation has made to force the Trump administration to end its pressure policy.”

Most important now: “How Washington responds,” Taleblu continues. “It must responsibly convey escalation dominance, signal resolve, and establish deterrence all without begetting another response.”

How that could be complicated: With the orders this week to send another 1,000 troops to the Middle East as a deterrent against Iran, the likelihood of additional episodes like this rises significantly. Or as Politico’s Bryan Bender tweeted this morning, “What if it wasn’t a drone the Iranians just shot down over the Straits of Hormuz but a piloted aircraft? This feels like it is slipping out of control.”

About those 1,000 extra U.S. troops: The Pentagon said Wednesday they will consist of a “Patriot Battalion, manned and unmanned ISR, fighter and mission support aircraft, as well as other deterrence capabilities.”

The Pentagon’s last line in that Wednesday message: “The United States does not seek conflict with Iran, but we are postured and ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region.” These, of course, are lines we have heard from both the U.S. and Iran repeatedly over the past seven weeks — or since the White House’s clumsy rollout of the USS Abraham Lincoln’s expedited deployment to the Middle East in early May.

Other Middle Eastern elements are trying to rattle U.S.-affiliated assets throughout Iraq over the past week, too. According to Agence France-Presse’s Baghdad correspondent, Maya Gebeily, those attacks include:

  • Mortars hitting an Iraqi military base in Balad, where U.S. troops are also based. That happened Friday.
  • On Sunday, “projectiles” hit a military airport in Baghdad.
  • Rockets fell on Taji, Iraq, where coalition forces are based, on Monday.
  • Mortars fell on an operations headquarters in Mosul on Tuesday.
  • And overnight Tuesday, as well as “around dawn” on Wednesday, U.S.“oil interests” of the companies ExxonMobil and GE-owned Baker Hughes were attacked near southern Iraq’s city Basra. More on all that, here.

And ICYMI: CBS News hopped aboard U.S. Navy assets in the Gulf of Oman this week to assess the damage to the M/T Kokuka Courageous. Find that video report from CBS’s Charlie D’Agata, here.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: “Iran Has Ties to Al Qaeda, [White House] Officials Tell Skeptical Congress,” the New York Times reported Wednesday.

Why this matters: “Briefings by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed up by other State Department and Pentagon officials, have led Democrats and some Republicans to ask whether the administration is building a case that the White House could use to invoke the war authorization passed by Congress in 2001 to battle terror groups as legal cover for military action against Iran.”

It’s good to be skeptical,” writes Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. However, he added this morning, “I’ve heard from x3 #EU states & the #UN that there *is* new evidence of more dangerous contact & likely coordination — [so these allegations are] not to be dismissed.”

Happening today: Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, heads to the Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain for talks.

From Defense One

Great Power Competition Ushers in a New Generation of European Weapons // Marcus Weisgerber: Rising tensions on display at the Paris Air Show as NATO and Russia unveil new and proposed arms.

Mission No. 1: Esper Will Attend NATO Meeting Next Week // Kevin Baron: Avoiding international embarrassment, soon-to-be Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper will attend a regularly scheduled defense ministers meeting.

HASC Chair on Mini-Nukes: ‘We’re Not Trying to Manage a Nuclear War’ // Patrick Tucker: House Democrats don’t want to fund variable-yield nukes. The new chairman just explained why.

USAF to Demo New Airborne Mesh Network for Latin American Militaries // Marcus Weisgerber: The technology is being showcased at a meeting of regional air chiefs this week.

Cutting Language Training Is the Latest Foolish Retreat from Global Engagement // Whitney Kassel: Cancelling bought-and-paid-for air tickets to study-abroad programs is the latest Trump administration blow to programs that support strategic understanding.

Pentagon, Lockheed Martin Failed to Ensure Proper Parts for F-35 // Charles S. Clark: Watchdog questions adherence to contracts and performance incentives for Defense’s largest buy.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter added solar panels to the White House. President Ronald Reagan would have them removed in one of his first acts as president.

Esper recusal coming? While Turkey mulls its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense system instead of the U.S.-made Patriot system from Raytheon, America’s soon-to-be Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper will likely have to recuse himself from talks with Turkish officials on a final decision, Politico reported Wednesday — since Esper was a Raytheon employee for seven years.
Worth noting: “Some defense analysts also pointed out that Turkey seems poised to move forward with the S-400 purchase regardless, making these negotiations [over the Patriot system] a moot point.” More here.

A very worrisome proximity to an alleged Russian agent. The State Department’s Andrea Thompson “didn’t disclose ties to the boyfriend of Russian agent Maria Butina,” Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported Wednesday.
Why is this worrisome? Thompson is “in charge of U.S. arms control negotiations with Moscow,” Rogin writes. “The wedding took place about six months before [GOP operative Paul Erickson] and [convicted unregistered Russian agent Maria Butina] were publicly identified as being connected to Russian influence operations inside the United States. But by the time of Thompson’s confirmation, allegations of the couple’s influence activities had been widely reported.”
Despite the press Butina and Erickson received, “Thompson never disclosed these ties to her superiors until approached this week by” Rogin. Read on, here.

One more U.S. city government has been held up by ransomware. This time it’s Riviera Beach, a 35,000-person town north of Miami whose brand-new municipal computer system — and all its electronic records — were frozen after an employee clicked on an emailed link. Defying FBI recommendations, the city council voted to pay the demanded $600,000, which is covered by the city’s insurance. USA Today has a bit more, here.
ICYMI: Baltimore is still digging out from a ransomware attack that froze some of its municipal computers for more than a month, an attack that exposed all sorts of mistakes by city IT managers, the Baltimore Sun reported recently.

An undercover FBI agent nabbed a Syrian refugee in the states who wanted to blow up a Christian church in Pennsylvania, NBC News reported Wednesday. “Mustafa Mousab Alowemer, 21, recorded a video of himself pledging an oath of allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group and bought bomb-making materials for a FBI undercover employee and a FBI confidential source to use in an attack,” NBC writes.
He was arrested Wednesday after sending “Google satellite maps to the FBI undercover employee and the confidential source describing routes of arrival and escape to the church.”
Key point: “Alowemer never obtained any explosives,” but he apparently was very keen on it, sharing documents entitled a “Beginners Course for Young Mujahedeen” and “The Extraction of Potassium Nitrate from Goat Manure and Other Methods” with his undercover FBI source.
Helping in the operation: Alowemer’s communication “with an ISIS-supporter in the U.S. who was already under investigation.” More here.

Concerning the migrant influx at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration took to court Tuesday “to argue that the government is not required to give soap or toothbrushes to children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and can have them sleep on concrete floors in frigid, overcrowded cells,” USA Today’s Justice and Investigations’ Editor Brad Heath tweeted Wednesday off this report from the Courthouse News Service.
The judge’s reax: “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary.” There’s no indication just yet on what the final judges’ ruling will be, but you can read on, here.

Canadian permafrost is melting 70 years earlier than predicted. A team of researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks returned to a remote part of far-northern Canada for the first time in three years, and were astounded to find pockets of melted ground that had been frozen for millennia and was not expected to thaw for another seven decades, Reuters reports.
That’s not just a local problem: “Scientists are concerned about the stability of permafrost because of the risk that rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises.”
ICYMI: Greenland, Alaskan seas are experiencing unprecedented melting. Last week brought news that temperatures in Greenland were 40 degrees higher than normal, melting ice unprecedentedly early in the year and that sea ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas along Alaska’s northern coast is at record lows for this point in the year. The latter promises a feedback loop of its own: the open water will retain more of the sun’s heat, delaying freezing this fall and likely starting next summer’s melt from a reduced point. Washington Post, here.
Government officials are currently meeting in Bonn to shore up international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. This June 17-27 meeting will in turn tee up the UN Climate Action Summit that will convene in New York in September.

For your eyes only: A map of North American early warning air defense systems, circa mid-1960s, via Reddit.

And finally today: Take a look at perhaps the “oldest known depiction of the cosmos” discovered by archaeologists working in Germany 20 years ago. So that means it’s not new to fans of Bronze Age relics, just new to us.
Where it was spotted: “at a prehistoric enclosure encircling the Mittelberg hill, near the town of Nebra in the Ziegelroda Forest, 180 km south-west of Berlin, Germany.” The disc is dated to around 1600 BC, and was pulled from the earth along with “two swords, two axes, a chisel, and fragments of armlets.” Read all about the collection, here.

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