Raid frees Taliban prisoners; US troops dig in at Saudi base; Details on deadly Kenya attack; Border wall section topples; And a bit more.

Afghan special forces freed 62 prisoners from a Taliban compound in western Afghanistan’s Badghis province, the Washington Post reported Wednesday from Kabul. 

The Afghan SF also captured five Taliban fighters in the assault, a U.S. defense official told the Post. “American support during the raid was limited to intelligence sharing and air support,” the official said. 

The Pentagon identified the two service members who died when their E-11A aircraft crashed Monday in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. They are: 

  • Lt. Col. Paul K. Voss, 46, of Yigo, Guam. He was assigned to Headquarters Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. 
  • Capt. Ryan S. Phaneuf, 30, of Hudson, New Hampshire. His unit was the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. 

Elsewhere in CENTCOM’s AO, in Saudi Arabia, “hundreds of tents have popped up and a newly arrived squadron of U.S. Air Force F-15E fighters is lined up on the tarmac” while “two American Patriot missile batteries are scanning the skies, prepared to knock down any Iranian attack against the Saudi kingdom,” the Associated Press reported Wednesday from Prince Sultan Air Base, pretty much in the middle of the country.

The base is two-thirds the size of the nation of Bahrain, a U.S. military official told the Post’s Missy Ryan.

Worth noting: The Saudis are still shooting down missiles “aimed at Saudi Aramco oil facilities,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, “after Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen said they had targeted the world’s most valuable company and other sites in Saudi Arabia.”

Forward air defense: AP reports “Wednesday’s stop at Prince Sultan Air Base was the second time in a week that [CENTCOM commander Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie] has visited a military site in the Middle East where the U.S. recently set up Patriot batteries to protect against missiles fired by Iran and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.” And in case you were wondering, Baldor writes, “Reporters accompanied McKenzie to the first site on the condition they not disclose its location for security reasons.”

Why did CENTCOM bring media to this base? Because its future “is part of a discussion with Defense Secretary Mark Esper about how many forces are needed in the region. That calculation is being made against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s push to get U.S. forces out of the Middle East and end what he calls America’s ‘endless wars,’” AP’s Lita Baldor writes. 

Perhaps more usefully, “The base is a vivid representation of the struggle to balance the escalating threats in the Middle East against the Pentagon’s insistence that the U.S. military shift more of its focus to Asia and the risks from China and Russia.” Read the rest, here.

Happening soon: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to talk to reporters this morning in a short-notice briefing at the Pentagon. Watch it at DVIDS, here

From Defense One

Kenya Base ‘Surprisingly’ Undefended During Attack, US Officials Say // Katie Bo Williams: The Jan. 5. attack by al-Shabaab killed three Americans came as the Pentagon considers a further drawdown of its African presence.

The US Navy Needs More Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchells // Cmdr. Kevin Chlan: The service must create ways to retain and use…not the reckless flyboy of 1986, but the experienced aviator of 2020.

Today’s Arctic Diplomacy Can’t Handle Tomorrow’s Problems // Abbie Tingstad: A new forum is needed to address military and security issues in the region.

To End America’s War in Afghanistan, US Troops Can’t Leave Yet / CSIS’ Annie Pforzheimer: Walking away out of frustration — especially during peace talks — is just as empty a strategy as doubling down out of optimism.

DOD Is Punishing Whistleblowers More Often and with Impunity, IG Says // Eric Katz, Government Executive: Lawmakers and advocates say Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower that kicked off his impeachment will do long-lasting harm.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1798, Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon spat tobacco juice in the face of Connecticut Rep. Roger Griswold on the floor of the House of Representatives in Philadelphia. Two weeks would pass before Griswold responded by attacking Lyon with a hickory walking stick; Lyon then defended himself with fire tongs. As the House recalls, “Underlying the Lyon-Griswold incident was Griswold’s support for the John Adams administration’s hard-line diplomacy toward France and military preparations in the event of hostilities.” Politico has a bit more, here.

Live now on Capitol Hill: AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM commanders before SASC. That is, U.S. Africa Command’s U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, and U.S. Southern Command’s Navy Adm. Craig Faller began testifying on their combatant command’s needs for the year ahead about 9 a.m. ET this morning. 
On lawmakers’ minds for AFRICOM: A White House plan to draw down the U.S. military’s force levels across the continent, as the New York Times reported over the Christmas holiday. 
On their minds for SOUTHCOM: Possible troop cuts, too — as McClatchy reported about a week ago. 
Expect Townsend and Faller to cite China and Russia as growing threats in their AOs since “Great Power Competition” has become so commonplace in the vocabulary of Washington. Catch the livestream, here

In other general officer news, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, wants to “clean up” the Pentagon’s tendency to overclassify things, Defense News reported Wednesday. Tiny bit more on that secretive mission, here.

More cases of coronavirus found worldwide. The count, according to the World Health Organization on Wednesday afternoon, was 7,183 people with viral pneumonia caused by the virus and 170 dead of it, all in China. The UN agency will decide on Thursday “whether to declare the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern,” The Guardian reports.
Speaking of viruses: The flu has killed 8,200 Americans since September, the CDC estimates. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot — which works on more than 99% of this season’s influenza viruses — it’s not too late.

U.S. deploys low-yield nuclear missile for first time, aboard the ballistic missile submarine Tennessee, which sailed from Kings Bay, Georgia, in December. “We estimate that one or two of the 20 missiles on the USS Tennessee and subsequent subs will be armed with the W76-2, either singly or carrying multiple warheads. Each W76-2 is estimated to have an explosive yield of about five kilotons,” write William M. Arkin and Hans M. Kristensen for the Federation of American Scientists. The U.S. military gave the Glomar response. More, here.
Why? The Trump administration and some analysts say the new weapons fill fill a “deterrence gap”; many others have pointed out that their deployment increases instability because, among other things, if Russia spots a missile coming out of the sea, it has no idea whether that’s a low- or high-yield warhead. 

F-35’s gun still can’t shoot straight, cyber vulnerabilities remain unpatched, etc. That’s from the upcoming annual report from DOD’s director of operational test and evaluation, as reported by Bloomberg, which wangled a sneak peek. The report “doesn’t disclose any major new failings in the plane’s flying capabilities. But it flags a long list of issues that his office said should be resolved — including 13 described as Category 1 “must-fix” items that affect safety or combat capability — before the F-35’s upcoming $22 billion Block 4 phase.” Read on, here.
The problems with the 25mm gun have been noted in at least the past three annual reports, notes Defense News’ Valerie Insinna.

And finally today: A few sections of the U.S. border wall in Calexico, Calif., blew into Mexico under high winds, CNN reported Wednesday. The panels had recently been set in concrete, a Customs and Border Protection agent told CNN; but the concrete hadn’t finished drying before the winds went to work on the metal panels. 
FWIW: The White House is trying to construct “450 miles of barriers in the ramp-up to the presidential election.” As of three weeks ago, “the administration announced that the wall had reached the 100-mile mark, the majority of which was replacing barriers with newer, enhanced designs, and around half a mile was constructed in the Rio Grande Valley where no wall previously existed.” More here.

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