What did Lt. Col. Schwemmer find in Iraq?; 30 swarm drones in 60 seconds; CENTCOM has 54k contractors; Bye-bye, Pentagon Channel; And a bit more.

An Iraqi provincial official in Anbar warns that Ramadi could fall amid fierce clashes in western Iraq and government forces’ struggle against the Islamic State. CNN this hour, here.

Turns out, Iraqi forces aren’t that squared away. The NYT’s Rod Nordland and other reporters are were in Camp Taji, Iraq this week in one of the first visits to U.S. trainers since the Pentagon started sending them in in bigger numbers. Nordland talked with a number of U.S. military trainers and support personnel about what they’re finding there. And, it ain’t great. Some trainers who are returning to Iraq now are finding the Iraqi forces are in more of a state of disrepair than they’d even thought going in.

Nordland: “…The current, woeful state of the Iraqi military raises the question not so much of whether the Americans left too soon, but whether a new round of deployments for training will have any more effect than the last.

“Iraq’s army looked good on paper when the Americans left, after one of the biggest training missions carried out under wartime conditions. But after that, senior Iraqi officers began buying their own commissions, paying for them out of the supply, food and payroll money of their troops. Corruption ran up and down the ranks; desertion was rife.

“The army did little more than staff checkpoints. Then, last year, four divisions collapsed overnight in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq under the determined assault of Islamic State fighters numbering in the hundreds or at most the low thousands, and the extremists’ advance came as far as this base.

“An army that once counted 280,000 active-duty personnel, one of the largest in the world, is now believed by some experts to have as few as four to seven fully active divisions — as little as 50,000 troops by some estimates.”

Best article lede we’ve seen in a while, sign of the times and all that, by The Times’ Nordland: “Lt. Col. John Schwemmer is here for his sixth Iraq deployment. Maj. James Modlin is on his fourth. Sgt. Maj. Thomas Foos? ‘It’s so many, I would rather not say. Sir.’” Read the whole story, in order!, here.

The Tikrit offensive showed that (1) Iran is not as strong as advertised in Iraq, and (2) Baghdad’s openness to more U.S. cooperation is growing just ahead of the Mosul and Fallujah offensives. Adam Tiffen of the Truman National Security Project and security analyst Omar al-Nidawi write in Defense One, here.

Meantime, Obama announced a $200 million humanitarian aid package for Iraq - and a warning to Iran yesterday in Washington. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum: President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned Iran to end its unilateral military role in Iraq, part of a broader U.S. effort to weaken Tehran’s influence in the fight against Islamist extremists in the Middle East. With Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sitting by his side in their first official Oval Office meeting, Mr. Obama said Iran had to ‘respect Iraqi sovereignty’ by channeling any military support through Baghdad. Now, Tehran backs Shiite militias fighting Sunni militants from Islamic State. Mr. Obama also moved to tighten U.S. ties with Iraq by announcing $200 million in fresh humanitarian aid for the country.

“The president’s moves come amid growing concerns by the U.S. and its Mideast allies about Iran’s efforts to extend its sway in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and in Yemen’s conflict.” More here.

And on the same issue from Reuters’ Jeff Mason: “…Asked about Iranian involvement in Iraq, Obama said that he expected the neighbors to have an "important relationship," and recognized that the mobilization of Shi'ite militias had been necessary to counter ISIL's advance last year. But he added that any foreign-backed groups in Iraq should now be under Abadi's control.

Obama, on Iranian ops inside Iraq: “Once Prime Minister Abadi took power ... from that point on, any foreign assistance that is helping to defeat ISIL has to go through the Iraqi government. That's how you respect Iraqi sovereignty… It needs to be help that is not simply coordinated with the Iraqi government, but ultimately is answerable to the Iraqi government and is funneled through the chain of command." More here.

Meantime, the Kurds need weapons. The Washington Times’ Rowan Scarborough: “Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the first to seriously confront the Islamic State invasion nine months ago, remain woefully short of arms as the central government in Baghdad withholds shipments of front-line American weapons, a top Kurdish official said. Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative to the U.S., issued a dire warning this month that the Kurdish peshmerga forces face a violent and better-equipped Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS. The terrorist army captured a full inventory of American weapons when it sent the Iraqi army into quick retreat in mid-2014.” More here. 

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Even if Congress approves the White House’s 2016 budget for the Defense Department, the Pentagon will be at least $10 billion short starting in 2021—which means replacing its aging nuclear-missile submarines, ICBMs, and long-range strategic bombers is out of the question unless something changes, DOD’s Frank Kendall said yesterday. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber, here.

Next year, the Navy will demonstrate the launch of up to 30 synchronized “swarm” drones in less than a minute, in what marks a significant advance in robot autonomy. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker: “The program, which the Navy is called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST, marks a significant advance in applications for robotic swarming software... For the LOCUST project, the Navy is relying on Coyote drones manufactured by Sensintel, an Arizona-based company recently acquired by Raytheon. Coyotes have proven especially useful to the special operations community as well as in various types of scientific research... [but] Future flying swarms wouldn’t be limited to Coyotes.” More here.

Central Command has about 54,000 private contractors working in its “AOR.” That includes 40,000 contractors alone inside Afghanistan. In the week that four Blackwater security guards were given long sentences for that infamous shooting in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007, comes a story from the NYT about how the private contractor industry is very much alive and well. The NYT’s James Risen and Matt Rosenberg on Page One: “…The private security industry that Mr. Prince helped bring to worldwide attention has fallen from public view since the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the two conflicts sped the maturation of security firms from bit players on the edge of global conflicts to multinational companies that guard oil fields in Libya, analyze intelligence for United States forces in Afghanistan, help fight insurgents in parts of Africa and train American-backed militaries in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“The United States Central Command, which is in charge of military forces in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, reported in January that 54,700 private contractors worked for the Defense Department in its areas of responsibility.

“In Afghanistan alone, where about 9,800 American troops are deployed, the Pentagon is paying for almost 40,000 private contractors, more than a third of whom are American, according to the Centcom report. Only a few hundred, though, are involved directly in security, with others doing everything from serving food to conducting intelligence work.” More here.

Who’s up to what today – Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work will speak with military and industry reps this morning in a classified forum at the 31st Annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Some of the points he’s expected to make: While the national security “space architecture” is resilient, it also faces increasing threats and the U.S. must think about and act on those challenges, Work will say. He’ll also talk about how the U.S. must continue to emphasize “space control” as challnges arise, and how to maintain military dominance, “we must consider all space assets, both classified and unclassified, as part of a single constellation,” according to talking points that were provided to The D Brief prior to Work’s remarks in Colorado. He’ll make a series of other points, too.

Following his remarks, Work will travel to Fort Carson to meet with military leaders there as well as servicemembers and civilians.

What else today? The Sea-Air-Space expo enters its final day today with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus talking unmanned systems and the Navy’s Task Force Innovation (more on that, here) at 12:15 p.m. …the Navy’s Vice Chief Adm. Michelle Howard moderates a #SAS15 panel discussion at 9 a.m.

A Q&A with Adm. Howard, the Navy’s first woman four-star, in AARP magazine, here.

And on the Hill today: DOD’s Christine Wormuth, PACOM’s Adm. Samuel Locklear and Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti all hit up the House Armed Services Committee to talk policy and posture in the Asia-Pacific. That’s a 10 a.m. hearing… HASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee talks U.S. nuclear forces at 3:30 p.m. (lineup and livestream, here).

Also today: House Speaker John Boehner, Senators Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi will collectively present  a Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders’ outstanding heroism and service to the United States during World War II.” That gets under way at 3 p.m. (catch it live, here), or read a bit more about these 80 courageous men and the honor, here.

Domestic surveillance and privacy concerns are often seemingly at odds with one another, but there’s a way to synchronize the two to prevent the next terror attack, Retired Gen. Norton Schwartz explains in Defense One, here.

Meantime, up to 20 women could now be part of the upcoming integrated Ranger school class beginning 5 days from now, WaPo’s Dan Lamothe reports from Fort Benning, here.

Want to know how Paula Broadwell works out? She’ll tell you, in the Charlotte Agenda, right here.

Say goodbye to the Pentagon Channel—it goes off the air on Friday. Lubold has more on the Channel that used to bring you “The Grill Sergeant”, here.

Hundreds of militants who fled a Pakistani military offensive are now wrecking havoc in eastern Afghanistan, killing 18 soldiers, including 8 who were beheaded. WaPo’s Sudarsan Raghavan from Kabul, here.

Despite the evacuation of U.S. personnel from Yemen, American drone strikes are still giving AQAP the business: one strike killed a senior operative. Al Jazeera English: “A senior leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen has been killed by a US air strike, according to a statement distributed by the group online. The group said in a statement on Tuesday that Ibrahim al-Rubaish, a Saudi, was killed in a drone attack two days earlier. The group did not specify where the purported strike took place. Al-Rubaish had a $5m bounty on his head.” More here.

The strike meant the Yemen branch of AQ lost its spokesman (also a former Gitmo detainee). NYT’s Scott Shane: “The spokesman, Ibrahim al-Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi citizen, had been held for five years in the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay... A senior Obama administration official...speaking on the condition of anonymity, made clear that the recent withdrawal did not end American drone operations, which are carried out from bases in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, in eastern Africa.” More here.

Azimuth check on Gitmo recidivists: Senators Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte want a lot of answers from ODNI James Clapper on three former Gitmo detainees who may have returned to the battlefield. Read their joint notice on the issue here—along with their 18-point letter to Clapper’s office—here.

The U.N. slapped an arms embargo on Yemen’s Houthis yesterday, CNN last night, here.

Not surprisingly, the Houthis condemn the U.N. action. Al Jazeera just this hour, here.

A complex attack on an education building in Somalia’s capital left nearly 20 dead, including 7 al-Shabab attackers. NYTs from Mogadishu: “The attack began with the suicide car bombing… The scene immediately became one of smoke, debris, pools of blood and burned bodies on the ground, witnesses said. After the blast, gunmen charged into the ministry and exchanged fire with guards…” Read the rest, here.

AP’s Abdi Guled on location: “Smoke was seen rising over the compound and security forces rushed to the scene and ambulances ferried wounded victims to hospitals. This is not the first time al-Shabab has attacked the government's education ministry… Al-Shabab often accuses the ministry of westernizing Somalia's education system.” More here.

“The Arab NATO” and Yemen: Former NATO commander Jim Stavridis writes in Foreign Policy about how the new 40,000-strong Arab League’s “response force” and its role against Iran. As the article’s tag line reads: “get ready for tense times and strange bedfellows in the Middle East.” Stavrdis: “…The initial force will be composed of troops mostly from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan (and a smattering of others from Gulf nations), and will be based in Egypt. It will be commanded by a Saudi general, and will boast a structured and permanent command structure. The idea is to pull together a multinational force that could be ready to react to future crises, in the same way that several Arab nations are currently conducting operations today in Yemen.” More here (may be a paywall issue).

The CIA’s WMD fiasco in Iraq shares more in common with Rolling Stone’s recent investigative journalism debacle than you might think, former CIA-er Aki Peritz writes in his intel/natsec blog OvertAction, here.

The CIA’s John Brennan needs a “Team B” for Iran. On the WSJ’s op-ed pages, Michael Mukasey and Kevin Carroll, here.

Cuba is no longer seen by the White House as a state that sponsors terrorism, and now Congress has a month and a half to help make it official. WaPo’s Karen DeYoung: “…The long-awaited action… follows a pledge made by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro last December to move toward normalized relations… Cuba’s removal would leave only three countries on the list: Iran, Sudan and Syria.” More here.