Rocket barrage near Baghdad; China warns of war; Syrian peace talks, overstuffed?; Here’s a tiny tractor beam; and a bit more.

In Iraq, a barrage of rockets struck a camp near Baghdad International Airport “holding members of an exiled Iranian opposition group,” killing nearly two dozen people on Thursday. Reuters reports that about 15 rockets landed near the facility housing the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, a group that’s been based in Iraq since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

“This was a Shiite militia shooting at the Iranian MEK camp,” U.S. military spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren told Defense One, from Baghdad. Warren also noted that the Iraqi spokesman ‎claimed 20 rockets landed near the camp causing “several MEK casualties. [The attack] was a ways away from [U.S. troops],” which are all safe, he said. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that U.S. forces were coordinating with Iraqis to provide urgent medical care.

China’s naval chief warns of “war” with the United States if the U.S. Navy doesn’t stop “dangerous, provocative” freedom of navigation treks near Beijing’s fake island chain in the South China Sea. “Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to U.S. chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson during a video teleconference on Thursday,” Reuters reports.

“If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war,” Wu said in a statement from the Chinese navy.

A U.S. Navy official tells The D Brief that the hour-long chat was “professional and productive.”

Discussed: “U.S. freedom of navigation operations; the relationship between the two navies, including pending port visits, senior leader engagement; and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue,” the official said. Richardson told his Chinese counterpart that U.S. freedom of navigation operations are “global in scope and executed across a wide range of maritime claims and should not be seen as provocative. These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” we’re told.

The U.S. may have a technological edge in naval power, but quantity is likely to matter more than quality in the South China Sea, where China operates “the largest of the country’s three fleets with 116 vessels,” according to the Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the matter. “China’s coastguard fleet alone dwarves those of Asian rivals combined,” Reuters reports, with “more than 200 coastguard ships over 500 tonnes, including many above 1,000 tonnes.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Seventh Fleet “operates 55 vessels, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, from its base in Yokosuka, Japan.”

Beijing’s expansionism and island-building could earn a rebuke at the Hague some two years after the Philippines first brought up the case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Manila sought “a ruling on its right to exploit the South China Sea waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

The early takeaway: “The tribunal found it had authority to hear seven of Manila’s submissions under UNCLOS and China’s decision not to participate did ‘not deprive the tribunal of jurisdiction.’” More here.

Syrian peace talks continue today in Austria. Nineteen foreign ministers are in Vienna for talks on the future of Syria, where Russia says there are at least 38 opposition groups that it believes should be involved in the path forward, AP reports.

While the immediate tensions surround the U.S. negotiations with Russian and Iran over the Syrian battle space, “the bigger challenge may well be reconciling the Saudis and the Iranians, longtime rivals who have turned Syria into the main battlefield in a broadening proxy war for dominance in the Middle East,” the New York Times writes. “As the Iranians have entered a partnership of convenience with Russia to bolster President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the Saudis have responded by giving more sophisticated weapons to their Sunni brethren among the rebels seeking to overthrow him, including antitank missiles that can pierce Russian-provided armor.”

The biggest skeptics of all. The Saudis are “convinced that Mr. Kerry’s effort here will collapse, in part because they believe Iran will support Mr. Assad at all costs.” But Riyadh doesn’t want the blame if efforts fail to end the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year.

Too big to succeed? “In addition to the Iranians and Saudis, delegates from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates will participate. American officials have expressed fear that attendance has swelled so much that it could impede progress,” NYT adds.

From Defense One

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Black Hawk Empty: A self-flying UH-60 helicopter delivered a small robotic all-terrain vehicle to a Florida drop zone on Tuesday, passing a critical test in autonomous helicopter flight and robot teaming. TARDEC roboticist Robert Sadowski told Defense One that if the Army can retrofit its Army’s 2,500 Black Hawks, “now you can do autonomous logistics when the crew is resting. It gives you the ability to have an enhanced operational tempo.” Technology Editor Patrick Tucker has that, here.

Expect the Russians to keep buzzing U.S. warships. On Tuesday, two Russian Tupolev Tu-142s approached the USS Ronald Reagan in international waters near the Korean peninsula, eventually passing within one mile of the U.S. carrier. These kinds of encounters — staples of the Cold War — had dwindled since the 1990s. But with Moscow reasserting itself and China flexing new military muscles, run-ins in sky and sea are becoming more common. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber has the story, here.

Now we have a (tiny) tractor beam. Today, it moves little specks of plastic, but someday the sky may be the limit. Researchers in England have created, essentially, a tractor beam that uses highly targeted sound waves to move objects in the air as though pulled and pushed by invisible fingers. Tucker, again, here.

A Who’s Who Guide to the Syrian Civil War from The Atlantic’s Kathy Gilsinan. “The Syrian war looks different depending on which protagonists you focus on. Here are just a few ways to look at it.” Get the players straight, here.

Don’t call the territory run by warlords or terror groups “ungoverned space.” That term of art is inaccurate, and dangerous, writes Hilary Matfess at Quartz. “If we are to restore the rule of law to areas held by non-government groups, we must consider the sort of order they provide.” That, here.

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

New F-35 boss at Lockheed Martin. Jeff Babione, a 23-year company employee, will take charge of the much-watched F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in January. Babione has been the deputy F-35 program manager since 2013 and has worked on the company’s F-22 and F-16 programs. Current F-35 boss Lorraine Martin has been promoted to deputy executive vice president of the company’s Mission Systems and Training division. More here.

There was another release from Guantanamo Bay this morning, and this time the former detainee is headed back to his home country of the U.K. “Shaker Aamer, whose detention at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba attracted the attention of human rights lawyers, political leaders and rock stars, was freed on Friday after more than 13 years in captivity, British officials announced,” NYT reports. “Mr. Aamer was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in late 2001 and turned over to the United States, which took him to its new wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay in February 2002. The United States government believed that he was involved with Al Qaeda, leaked documents show, but he maintained that he was in the country to do charitable work.”

Aamer’s move leaves 112 detainees at the facility in Cuba. “The release had been expected, after the Pentagon announced last month that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had approved a proposal to transfer Mr. Aamer.” More here.

In Africa, Boko Haram is quickly losing turf after the U.S. stepped up its training and intelligence-sharing with Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, said AFRICOM chief Gen. David Rodriguez in an interview with WSJ’s Julian Barnes. R4’s words, Barnes writes, “contradict the statements of Boko Haram, which claims to have retained the Belgium-size caliphate it carved out of Nigeria last year.”

The group’s growing ties with ISIS have helped it step up its propaganda game, Rodriguez said, and they’ve also altered their “use of roadside bombs and suicide bombings, mirroring tactics honed by Islamic State.” More here.

An “evergreen” update from the “graveyard of empires.” In the rural spaces of war-torn Afghanistan, Kabul is turning once again to militias to fill security gaps. It’s a rock-and-a-hard-place compromise that has bedeviled Kabul and NATO forces since the Taliban were toppled from power more than a decade ago—well before Afghanistan’s security forces had the capacity and numbers that they do today. But those numbers still aren’t enough to provide order in the restive remote parts of the country like the northern Kunduz province, the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan reports.

The unchanging context: “With its forces straining to combat a spreading insurgency, the Afghan government is partly outsourcing the war to irregular militias, many of them U.S.-funded, even as President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to disarm them. As a result, new strongmen have emerged while established ones have grown more powerful.”

A common refrain: “The increasing reliance on the militias is the latest sign that the United States’ signature effort in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks — building a capable army and police force — is buckling under a challenge from the Taliban,” Raghavan writes. Catch his entire report—rife with allegations of beating and bribery—here.

Back stateside, a budget deal is all but done. It now sits on the president’s desk awaiting a signature. “The Senate voted 64-35 for the measure in the early morning hours Friday, with Democrats and Republican defense hawks uniting to overcome opposition from GOP presidential candidates Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas,” AP reports. “Obama had negotiated the accord with congressional leaders who were intent on steering the institution away from the brinkmanship and shutdown threats that have haunted it for years.” That, here.

Have fun with this one: The U.S. Army is “weak.” While U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” in every appearance (sometimes 2 or 3 times in the same appearance), the conservative hawks over at the Heritage Foundation just called that U.S. Army "weak." To be fair, the report was created long before the new House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., flagged the dire need for more unity on the Hill and less divisive talk across the board.

But back to that report, briefly: The U.S. “does not have the right force to meet a two–major regional contingency requirement and is not ready to carry out its duties effectively…Consequently, the U.S. risks seeing its interests increasingly challenged and the world order it has led since World War II undone,” reads the report from Heritage, which Stars and Stripes notes “is often critical of the Obama administration.”

From the report: “All four branches of the military face severe readiness, capability, or capacity challenges. Three of the services were rated as ‘marginal’ in their ability to contribute adequate combat power. The Army fared worse, earning a ‘weak’ rating overall. Both Army and Marine Corps earned poor ‘capacity’ scores, meeting only 64 percent of their manpower needs. The Navy and Air Force were rated as ‘marginal’ due primarily to inadequate modernization and equipment replacement programs.” Read the report for yourself, here.

Trump to the F-35 program: You’re fired if I’m president. “When they say that this cannot perform as well as the planes we already have, what are [we] doing, and spending so much more money?” Trump said during an appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio show on Oct. 22, Air Force Times’ Phillip Swarts reports. “I do hear that it’s not very good,” he said. “I’m hearing that our existing planes are better. And one of the pilots came out of the plane, one of the test pilots, and said this isn’t as good as what we already have.” More here, or catch the full interview in audio or transcribed here.