US widens anti-ISIS options; USAF shrinks bomber-cost estimates; Navy plans sub-drone squadrons; What to look for at tonight’s GOP debate; and a bit more...

U.S. seeks more options in its war against the Islamic State group. So far, those include more frequent daily airstrikes; sending special forces to Syria to monitor moderate rebels more closely and call in airstrikes; and deploying Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, Reuters reports. “If President Barack Obama gives a nod to any of the proposals, it would represent an about-face for a leader who had been trying to curtail the U.S. military role in those conflicts, not deepen it,” WSJ writes.

Defense Secretary: expect more special operations raids like last Thursday’s. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Ashton Carter described a path for Washington’s counter-ISIS fight, couching it in his three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi and raids.

There is, of course, one more big “R” in the region. “Our continued support really would be problematic were they [Iraqi leaders] to invite the Russians in to conduct strikes,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told SASC. When Lawmakers asked whether Iraq could stop Russia from bombing, the Marine general replied that Iraq’s air force has “limited air-to-air capability.”

Lawmakers focused much of their indignation on whether the Pentagon will defend trained moderates from Syrian military attacks.

“The forces inside Syria that the Pentagon is training have a right to U.S. protection from the air,” Dunford told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. But, the general conceded, “The balance of forces right now are in Assad’s advantage.”

Graham: “How do we leverage Assad leaving when Russia’s gonna fight for him, Iran’s gonna fight for him, Hezbollah’s fighting for him...And we’re not gonna do a damn thing to help people take him down.”

It doesn’t look as if Graham’s cries will be heeded soon. Fortunately, the Pentagon’s contingent of trained Syrian rebels has not come under attack from Russian jets or Assad’s army. The CIA’s rebels, however, is a different story for a different hearing of the closed-door type. More on the Carter-Dunford hearing, here.

And Iran is now attending talks on the future of Syria to be held in Vienna on Thursday and Friday, AP reports. “The United States is taking a gamble,” AP writes. “Iran has backed Assad's government throughout the conflict, fighting alongside the Syrian military, and is seen by Western-backed rebels and U.S. partners in the region as a major source of the bloodshed. The Syrian opposition may balk at Iran's inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like. On the other hand, all previous international efforts have done nothing to stop the fighting, and Kerry is trying to unite all sides with influence in the Arab country around a common vision of a peaceful, secular and pluralistic Syria governed with the consent of its people.” That, here.

For what’s believed to be the first time, Turkey’s jets hit U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria, calling the Euphrates River Ankara’s “red line,” WSJ reports. Forces from the YPG were hit in two strikes that the U.S. has so far been unable to confirm. More here.

And the bomber goes to...Northrop Grumman, which received the long-awaited Air Force contract to develop the Long Range Strike-Bomber, along with options to build the first 21 of a projected fleet of 100 optionally manned, nuclear/conventional aircraft to replace the B-52 and B-1. Air Force officials didn’t add much to the public knowledge of the largely secret program, but they did say that the estimated per-plane production cost had declined from $550 million to $510 million and the cost of LRS-B development would be an estimated $21.4 billion (all figures in 2010 dollars). Global Business Writer Marcus Weisgerber has the story.

The USAF’s estimate for the entire program thus remains under $80 billion (a bit over $87 billion in current dollars), while CSIS’ Todd Harrison predicts it will come closer to $111 billion. Harrison and colleague Andrew Hunter also have some advice for the Air Force, here.

From Defense One

Next Monday! The Defense One Summit 2015: The Age of Everything. On Nov. 2, top national security leaders from military, government, and politics will gather to discuss how they are confronting today’s threats: from terrorism to cyberattacks, Russia, Iran, and in space, at sea, even in Chattanooga. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will appear in a live keynote interview. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will talk about setting his service’s priorities to face ground threats. Join us! Register here.

So how’s that budget deal going to affect defense? CSIS’ Harrison offers his thoughts in his delightfully named “Trick or Treat: A Pleasant Surprise for the Defense Budget”: The debate over the defense budget is not really about defense. But this is the best possible deal, he concludes. Read why, here.

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson,  Bradley Peniston and Molly O'Toole. Tell your friends to subscribe here: Want to see something different? Got news? Let us know:

New pics have surfaced of China’s likely first indigenous aircraft carrier. The ship, currently known only as “17” and looking to displace roughly 65,000 tons, is on the building ways at Dalian Shipyard, which previously turned the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag into the Liaoning. Popular Science has the pics and a bit of analysis, here.

Return of the Republican debates. The Republican presidential candidates will square off yet again at 8 p.m. EDT at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado Boulder for a debate hosted by CNBC. Candidates had to average at least 3 percent in recent national polls to make the main stage — that’s businessman Donald Trump, with neurosurgeon Ben Carson hot on his heels, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Those who garnered at least 1 percent will get their shot at the “kids table” forum at 6 p.m.: former Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Carson is gunning to take frontrunner status from Trump, who’s none too happy about it — but the stakes might be highest for Bush, suffering slumping poll numbers and whispers of doubts after a recent restructuring of his campaign team. Rubio stands to gain the most from the former governor’s slow but steady slip from establishment choice. Watch for their dynamic as a sign of things to come.

Rubio came out against the budget agreement the night before the debate, calling the deal negotiated between the leadership, with heavy White House input, “‘business as usual’ in Washington.”

“I oppose this deal, which fails to seriously address the long-term drivers of our debt, contains no fundamental reforms to stop Washington from spending money it doesn’t have and does not come close to meeting our military needs in a dangerous global security environment," he said. "This severely flawed deal punts an opportunity to prioritize defense spending to the levels necessary to protect our nation, irresponsibly increases the debt ceiling through March 2017 and fails to reform Social Security Disability Insurance to ensure its long-term solvency."

But others on both sides of the aisle begrudgingly backed the bipartisan, 2-year deal that would put off budget brinksmanship until after the presidential election. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who will sit down with Defense One's Molly O'Toole at the Defense One Summit on Monday said, “Our military has been the target of repeated funding cuts, and it has been used by the President as a political bargaining chip,” but continued, “Our Armed Forces deserve to have some stability in their funding as they defend the nation in an increasingly dangerous world...Under the circumstances, I believe that this agreement deserves support because it provides predictable funding for our nation’s security at a time of great uncertainty.”

Outgoing Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., too couldn’t resist taking his shots in his statement of support: “Democrats have long called for bipartisan action to stop devastating sequester cuts from hitting our nation’s military and our middle class. With this agreement, we’ve done just that ... The time to do away with the devastating sequester cuts that are harming our middle class and our military is now.”

A Navy robot will set sail from San Francisco to San Diego next spring, part of the service’s efforts to deploy a whole squadron of underwater robots by 2020. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus dropped that and other tantalizing details yesterday at the AUVSI conference in Crystal City. Tech Reporter Patrick Tucker has that, here. Also announced: Frank Kelley, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general, will take the four-month-old job of deputy assistant Navy secretary for unmanned systems, and will work closely with Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, who runs the service’s new directorate for rapid development, prototyping and demonstration of unmanned warfare systems. That, from Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston.

Today is something of a farewell tour for retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, outgoing Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. After testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “The U.S. Role and Strategy in the Middle East,” at 9:30 a.m., he'll meet with President Obama at the White House at 3 p.m. On Friday the president announced Allen would be replaced by Brett McGurk, Allen's deputy and deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran at the State Department.

An opportunistic Taliban seizes quake-hit district in Afghanistan’s north. “Fighters seized control of the district capital of Darqand in Takhar province, on the border with Tajikistan in the early hours of Wednesday,” Reuters reports. “Abdul Khalil Asir, a spokesman for the Takhar police chief, said security forces had withdrawn from the district after six hours of fighting overnight.” That, here.

And Russia is now saying Taliban presence in Afghanistan’s north is sufficient cause for “invasion” fears throughout Central Asia, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov said in comments carried by Russian news agencies this morning, AP reports.

This bit of tough talk as Moscow confirmed its first casualty in Syria since Russia began its own air campaign in Assad’s country. Moscow says the soldier died of suicide, but the soldier’s parents are more than a little skeptical, the Washington Post writes.

“What is this stuff about him hanging himself? “He had a broken jaw and the back of his head was bashed in. And his neck was broken,” an unnamed man who described himself as the uncle of Vadim Kostenko told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper on the day of the dead serviceman's funeral in his home village in southern Russia,” Reuters adds.

And in the Asia-Pacific, China summoned the U.S. ambassador over allegations “that the U.S. had acted in defiance of repeated Chinese objections and had threatened China's sovereignty and security,” AP reports. Beijing is reportedly “extremely dissatisfied and a resolutely opposed” the U.S. actions near its Subi and Mischief Reefs isles. The State Department, for its part, “declined to confirm the Tuesday meeting, or comment on any remarks made on the issue.” More here.

Aussie’s to the world: we may copy the U.S. Navy’s playbook on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Plans are reportedly being floated at the Australian defense ministry to conduct a “naval sail-through close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea,” WSJ reports from Canberra.

“It is important to recognize that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights,” Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on Wednesday after the Lassen’s contentious passage near Subi and Mischief.

For what it’s worth: “Australia has two naval frigates in the South China Sea region—the HMAS Arunta and HMAS Stuart—which have been scheduled to carry out exercises alongside Chinese warships over the next week, as a naval confidence-building exercise.” More here.

More than 300 Boko Haram captives freed. Nigeria’s military this morning says it rescued “338 people held captive by Boko Haram and raided a number of the Islamist militant group's camps on the edge of its stronghold in the northeast's Sambisa forest,” Reuters reports. “The vast Sambisa forest reserve, the group's remaining stronghold, has become hard to penetrate due to widespread landmines laid by the militant group. In the last few months the military has ramped up its offensive into the Sambisa and surrounding areas with air strikes and an increase in ground troops.” More here.

Back stateside, the U.S. Army is on track to drop another 59,000 troops from its active and reserve rosters—which means it will have to pursue involuntary discharges to meet its manpower goal, Army Times reported.

The numbers: “The Army ended fiscal 2015 on Sept. 30 with 1,039,000 soldiers, a total force consisting of 491,000 Regular Army members, 350,000 National Guard and 198,000 Army Reserve. As the Army moves towards the end of the drawdown in 2018, that total force will be reduced to 450,000 regulars, 335,000 National Guardsmen and 195,000 Army Reservists, for a total of 980,000.”

“Ideally, we’d like to do the drawdown entirely through accessions and natural attrition, but we won’t be able to do that…There will be some involuntary separations as we go forward,” said Lt. Gen. James C. McConville, chief of personnel.

Lastly today—and well in advance of the gift-giving season—here are six of the best pieces of military gear you can buy on Amazon, as compiled by the folks at We Are the Mighty. It’s a virtual “best of” list for anyone who has ever changed post (or departed service) who’s had to recover all those items issued way back when that first assignment popped up.

What tops the list? Parachute cord (aka 550 cord). Numbers 3 and 5 shouldn’t surprise (the woobie and the Gerber MP600 multi-tool). And #6 is one that even contentious objectors use—though our guess is they wouldn’t call it “100 mph tape.”