The U.S. military nearly hit Iranian radar and missile batteries in a flurry of strikes Thursday evening, but President Trump called it off at the last minute, the New York Times reported overnight, citing “multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.” According to Trump this morning, concerns over a possibly disproportionate U.S. response played a key role in his reluctance to strike.
“Planes were in the air and ships were in position,” the Times writes, “but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down.” If you had any worries that this leak was undesirable, the reports’ authors (four of them altogether) noted that “No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.” That included both White House and Pentagon officials.
The strikes were apparently so close to happening that “Some global airlines re-routed flights to avoid Iran-controlled airspace over the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred U.S. carriers from the area until further notice,” Reuters reports.
So, why call it off? Tucker Carlson’s advice could have been one reason, according to The Daily Beast. Perhaps more substantively, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called U.S. officials in Washington to warn things could easily spiral out of control, according to Reuters.
Here’s Trump on Twitter this morning explaining his decision: “On Monday [Iran] shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
For the record: the Treasury Department’s Iran sanctions page shows no evidence of new sanctions.
Other U.S. officials who offered their advice to Trump: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The Times writes that all three “favored a military response.” Ditto for Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, according to Politico.
The Pentagon, however, was not so keen on that — with top Defense Department “officials caution[ing to the president] that such an action could result in a spiraling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also not keen on military action, tweeting Thursday around 5 p.m. EDT, “[I]t is essential that we remain fully engaged with our allies, recognize that we are not dealing with a responsible adversary & do everything in our power to de-escalate.”
However, the WH appears to be signalling none of this is over just yet, since the Times writes that “It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.”
For some possible insight into Trump’s thinking, we have a series of remarks he made to reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday. Those remarks, via ABC News, include the following:
- “Fortunately, that drone was unarmed. It was not — there was no man in it, it was in international waters but we didn’t have a man or woman in the drone, we had nobody in the drone. Would have made a big, big difference.”
- “I would imagine it was a general or somebody who made a mistake in shooting the drone down.”
- “I have a feeling — and I may be wrong and I may be right but I’m right a lot — that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn’t have been doing what they do… I think they made a mistake and I’m not just talking about the country made a mistake somebody under the command of the country made a mistake.”
And there was also this line from Trump: “It was a very foolish move,” the decision to shoot down the $130 million surveillance aircraft Thursday morning, that is. “This is a new fly in the ointment — what happened, shooting down the drone — and this country will not stand for it,” he added.
By the way: Iran says it was more restrained Thursday morning than we first understood. The chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, Amirali Hajizadeh, said today that Iran could have killed three-dozen Americans, but it chose not to. His quote about that, via Reuters’ Phil Stewart this morning: “With the U.S. drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board. This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not.”
For what it’s worth: “Since 1946, 40+ US recon aircraft were shot down with the loss of 100+ lives,” tweeted aviation historian Robert Hopkins. “The US has NEVER retaliated. No reason to start over a damn drone.”
U.S. Central Command, for its part, released more imagery on Thursday that it says more conclusively proves that the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone was not in Iranian airspace or over Iranian territory when it was shot down. However, the Times writes that “the [Defense Department] incorrectly called the flight path of the drone the location of the shooting down and offered little context for an image that appeared to be the drone exploding in midair.”
That imagery release came during a four-minute appearance at the Pentagon — the first such televised appearance by U.S. military officials in the building in 386 days. And the official — Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the Air Force commander for CENTCOM — took no questions.
That Defense Department imagery was made public shortly after Iranian state media released video of the air defense system launching the fateful missile at the drone, as well as an animation of what it alleged was proof the drone was actually in Iranian airspace when it was shot down.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also posted an illustration he alleged advanced Tehran’s case, adding “We’ve retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down.”
Warned Zarif in his tweet: “The US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us & now encroaches on our territory. We don’t seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters. We’ll take this new aggression to #UN & show that the US is lying about international waters”
Useful reading: Get to better know the “Domestic and International Legal Implications” of Iran downing the U.S. drone via the folks at Lawfare, here.
And consider this: The American drone was brought down Thursday by Iran’s second-best anti-aircraft missile system. The RQ-4 and its sisters are the best at what they do, reports Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, but “they were designed for past wars, for use against insurgent forces such as ISIS or the Taliban that cannot track and destroy high-flying aircraft. Iran and other potential adversaries, by contrast, have radar and missiles that can turn some of the U.S. military’s most important drones into expensive, conspicuous targets.” Read on, here.
From Defense One
How the Pentagon Nickel-and-Dimed Its Way Into Losing a Drone // Patrick Tucker: The lion’s share of the U.S. drone fleet is easy prey for advanced air defenses. It didn’t have to be that way.
Defense One Radio Ep. 45: Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter // Defense One Staff: Carter sat down with Defense One to talk about China, what it takes to succeed in the Pentagon, how not to waste a $750 billion-dollar defense budget — and much more.
Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: #ParisAirShow: How the Raytheon-UTC merger came about; Patriot vs. S-400; Predicting when planes will break and more.
Trump Might Not Want War, but the Military Is Steering His Iran Policy // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: The buildup in the Middle East is coming at the request of the forces responsible for the region.
Bolton Keeps Trying to Goad Iran Into War // Peter Beinart, The Atlantic: For more than a decade, he’s consistently promoted war with Iran. All that has changed are the pretexts he’s offering to justify one.
Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. Admin note: Watson will be taking leave for the next 10 days or so, and leaves this newsletter in the very capable hands of Mr. Peniston and the rest of the Defense One team. On this day in 1913, Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick became the first woman to parachute from an airplane.
The U.S. is developing a longer-ranged air-to-air missile. The Air Force and Navy have hired Lockheed Martin to create the AIM-160, a new weapon “with significantly greater range than the AIM-120 Amraam as a counter to China’s new PL-15 weapon,” Aviation Week reports.
How far? Well, the Air Force says today’s AIM-120 can strike targets at “20+ miles,” but its AIM-120D variant is thought to have an actual range of some 100 miles. So, farther than that?
When? The AIM-160 “is scheduled to begin flight testing in 2021 and achieve initial operational capability in 2022, said Brig. Gen. Anthony Genatempo, the Air Force’s program executive officer for weapons,” Avweek reports, here.
If the U.S. sanctions Turkey for buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system, then Ankara will sanction right back, Turkish President Recep Erdogan warned Thursday, via Bloomberg, in an extension of the already extended drama between the U.S. and Turkey over the S-400 and America’s F-35 fighter jet program.
Just catching up on all the drama? Bloomberg has a separate piece on the gripes, the history and some possible ways forward, here.
U.S. officials are neglecting children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Associated Press, reporting from El Paso, Texas. “A 2-year-old boy locked in detention wants to be held all the time. A few girls, ages 10 to 15, say they’ve been doing their best to feed and soothe the clingy toddler who was handed to them by a guard days ago,” AP reports. At the Border Patrol station at El Paso, 250 infants, children and teens are being held with “inadequate food, water and sanitation,” many after being separated from their families under Trump administration policy.
That’s all according to a team of lawyers who “inspected the facilities because they are involved in the Flores settlement, a Clinton-era legal agreement that governs detention conditions for migrant children and families. The lawyers negotiated access to the facility with officials, and say Border Patrol knew the dates of their visit three weeks in advance.”
Without precedent. “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” Holly Cooper, who co-directs University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic and represents detained youth, told AP. More details, here.
ICYMI: U.S. troops might finish their mission to paint the border-wall in Calexico, Calif., by July 4, CNN reported earlier this month.
Meet two Americans who volunteered to fight ISIS in Syria. The LA Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske profiled the two men — one a former Marine, Kevin Howard, aged 27; and the other, Taylor Hudson, aged 35, is a man who unsuccessfully tried to become a Marine but was forbidden because of a wrist tattoo — in a #LongRead Thursday.
Both of them joined the French Foreign Legion. Both of them became disillusioned stuck in France training. And both went to Syria to fight ISIS in 2016. While in Syria, however, “In time, both men soured on the militia” they had joined, a Christian one called the Syriac Military Council.
Now back stateside, both men are finding it extremely difficult to adjust to ordinary life. Story, here.
The next pandemic will likely come with a significant amount of misinformation, security guru Bruce Schneider writes at the New York Times. That means a battle on two fronts for public officials and medical professionals: “understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population” and “fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet. The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, only with the addition of a deadly health crisis and possibly without a malicious government actor.”
The good news? “If we work to solve the pandemic disinformation problem, any solutions are likely to also be applicable to the democracy one.” Read on, here.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And you can catch us again on Monday!