No Deal on South China Sea; Who’s in charge during a ‘cyber Pearl Harbor’?; Can Ash Carter tame Israel?; GOP’s $5B target list for cuts; And a bit more...

Impasse in the South China Sea continues. Any hopes to set up a method to mediate territorial disputes in the SCS sank during U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to Malaysia for the the biannual Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, aka the ADMM+, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“The Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration,” said a senior U.S. defense official. “Even so, Mr. Carter hailed the summit as a success, citing progress on a number of fronts including counterterrorism and disaster relief, and saying unanimity on the South China Sea issue had never been likely.”

Carter: “I had no expectation that they would all agree; that’s the purpose of this forum. It was very clearly an issue of discussion and an issue of concern by countries in the meeting because everybody raised it.”

But Carter is nonetheless “doubling down on the signals he intends to send while he is in the region by visiting…a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier [USS Theodore Roosevelt] on patrol in the South China Sea on Thursday.”

Important to note: “The Theodore Roosevelt isn’t expected to sail within 12 nautical miles of any of the disputed islands, as the destroyer USS Lassen did last week, in a direct challenge to Chinese claims there,” WSJ adds. That story, here.

The other big news out of the Asia-Pacific: officials from China and Taiwan will meet in Singapore for the first time since the retreat of the Chinese Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait in 1949. More from the New York Times, here.

“Hey soldier, do you know who’s in command here?” A disturbing consequence of the dreaded “cyber Pearl Harbor” scenario has surfaced: the chain of command appears to be very unclear in light of the Pentagon’s new cyber strategy, published in April. In that guidance, the military carves out a clear role for itself and U.S. Cyber Command to respond to any sort of cyber attack of “significant consequence,” Defense One Tech Editor Patrick Tucker writes.

Here’s why that’s a problem: The Department of Homeland Security has the lead in responding to most cyber attacks, but the Pentagon’s strategy tasks that role to more than a dozen different National Mission Force teams, cyber teams specifically set up to defend the United States and its interests from attacks of significant consequence. It’s the third strategic goal in the Defense Department’s new strategy. It’s also “probably the one that’s the least developed at this point,” Lt. Gen. James McLaughlin, CYBERCOM’s deputy commander, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last month. Having a structure in place for planning discussions is dramatically different than actually having a crystal clear plan of who is in charge of what when the power goes out and the nation becomes a walking Capt. Willard in “Apocalypse Now.” Catch Tucker’s report in full, here.

The Kunduz bombing...and the whooshing sound of a blown deadline. Thirty days have passed since the U.S. military fired on the Doctors without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, killing more than two-dozen patients and staff. And those 30 days are noteworthy because that’s how long Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the war in Afghanistan, said it would take for the Pentagon to release its initial findings. Well—“On Tuesday, the deadline came and went, and defense officials had no word on when the findings would be forthcoming,” The Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris write: “Also yet to be released is an initial report from a so-called combat assessment team, which is supposed to determine whether the military believes there were any civilian casualties during an operation. Officials had previously said such a report could be released within 72 hours of the attack.”

And this is particularly concerning, they write, “because, in the days after the attack, which left at least 23 people dead, senior military and White House officials had enough information to say publicly the U.S. had made a ‘mistake’ by firing on the hospital.” More here.

From Defense One

Did you miss any part of “The Age of Everything” at the Defense One Summit on Monday? You can now find complete video from every mainstage session—from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and more—here.

Iraq isn’t just divided. It’s really, really divided. Here’s a thorough rebuttal to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who last week argued the path forward for Iraq’s disparate populations calls for reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. That familiar three-way depiction of Iraqi society oversimplifies the bargain needed to defeat the Islamic State and glosses over deep and historic divisions between Iraq’s Sunnis, write Stanford University’s Martha Crenshaw and Lisa Blaydes.

Ash Carter sits with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to talk U.S.-Israel strife. He says he’s the man who “maintains the insurance policy” on the Iran deal (a military strike). But the Iran-inspired breakdown in relations between Obama and Bibi—who have scheduled a sit-down Monday in the Oval Office—means that Carter is now point man on maintaining the relationship. Obama is just the Monday appetizer, though. That evening Netanyahu is the keynote guest and award recipient at the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s annual gala dinner. Goldberg lays out the challenges confronting the defense secretary, in his interview, here.  

The U.S. Coast Guard is quietly building up allies in the Arctic. And their newly announced “Arctic Coast Guard Forum” now frees up Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the U.S. and Russia to address security in a frank manner that was prohibited by the Arctic Council charter. USCG Capt. Ronald LaBrec, via Council on Foreign Relations, delivers his pitch for the new forum here.

The White House’s plan to prevent the next OPM hack brings a raft of deadlines for federal IT officials. And NextGov’s Jack Moore explains more than a half-dozen of them that are just around the corner, right here.

Have you heard about the new cybersecurity drinking game? The next time you are at a cybersecurity industry event—an evening event with an open bar—find one of the many lawyers in the room and ask them whether Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, or CISA, would apply to internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. Every time “it depends” is the reply, take a shot. If the lawyers are any good, you’ll be hammered by the time you call for your Uber ride home. Here’s why.

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

Is the U.S. preparing for dogfights in the skies over Syria? The Pentagon is sending F-15C Eagle twin-engine fighters to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base—“supposedly to fight the ISIS war,” writes TDB’s David Axe. “But the jets only have air-to-air weapons, and ISIS has no planes. Which means the real adversary is Russia.”

What else they could be doing: “help the Turkish air force patrol Turkey’s border with Syria, intercepting Syrian planes and helicopters that periodically stray into Turkish territory. But more likely, the F-15s will be escorting attack planes and bombers as they strike ISIS militants in close proximity to Syrian regime forces and the Russian warplanes.”

Moscow, for its part, has sent “several Su-30 fighters that are primarily air-to-air fighters” to western Syria. “The Su-30s’ arrival in Syria raised eyebrows, as Moscow insists its forces are only fighting ISIS, but ISIS has no aircraft of its own for the Su-30s to engage.”

Adds Axe: “It’s worth noting that F-15Cs have never deployed to Afghanistan, nor did they participate in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The war in Syria is different.” Read the rest, here.

ICYMI: Russia says it’s okay with the notion of Assad stepping down from power in Syria, AP reported from Moscow on Tuesday.

More signs-of-the-times: Army sweetens pot to retain senior Green Beret NCOs—that is, promotable E7s and up: the Army would really like you to stay in the uniform. In fact, it’s dangling as much as $150k your way to extend your time in service. But act fast, the window could close as soon as Nov. 23. More from Army Times, here.

A bit more good news for the Army’s special operations units: “By mid-2019, the system to navigate through thick clouds of dust or snow will be installed on specialized MH-47G Chinook copters and MH-60M Black Hawks flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky,” Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio reports. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber did a bit of digging into the Army’s desire for its helos to “own bad weather” back at the Quad-A convention in Nashville in March. (Think Night Stalkers for sandstorms.) You can catch that, here.

The $5 billion question gets answered. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, decided yesterday to cancel a Thursday vote to attempt to override President Obama's veto of the defense authorization bill—a decision undoubtedly helped along by the fact he didn't have the votes. Thornberry introduced an essentially identical bill on Tuesday—minus $5 billion in cuts to bring it in line with the 2-year budget agreement Obama signed into law on Monday. He and his counterpart in the Senate, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., worked with the Democratic ranking members on their committees to find the trims.

Here's a sampling from the line items: In the first eyebrow-raiser, GOP lawmakers offer to slash $250 million from “Army Readiness increase”, and nearly $500 million for active and Guard combined. Yet readiness is the one thing Army leaders have told Congress they need the most, head-shaking at their gridlock for three years.

Another big ticket item: $230 million would pull from the long range strike bomber program “to align with contract award delay.” (Hmm, why wasn’t that already removed?)   

The easier cuts: A cool $1.1 billion came from adjusting fuel costs to reflect lower oil prices (Again, why didn’t they already do that?), with another $453 million from “Planned DoD Headquarters streamlining/attrition”—staff reductions to Defense Department's HQ, which had already been announced.

Some interesting moves: $250 million from the national counterterrorism partnership fund, $100 million from coalition support funds, and $125 million from the "change" in the Syria train and equip program.

Check them all out here.

What about GTMO? The new legislation is “​otherwise identical​ to the NDAA that passed the House and Senate earlier this year,” lawmakers note. So will Obama veto the NDAA again over the same Guantanamo restrictions. McCain and Thornberry say it's too late for changes to this year's bill (which they just changed), closure plan or no,​ and others suggest he wouldn't dare. More on this to come from Defense One.

Lastly today—FLOTUS and the troops at al-Udeid in Qatar. “Roars of applause from three-dozen uniformed service members greeted Michelle Obama when she walked into the Fox Sports Sky Box sports bar at Al Udeid air base Tuesday night,” the NYTs Eric Schmitt, serving as pool reporter for the evening, wrote from Qatar: Joined by late night talk show host Conan O'Brien, Mrs. Obama paid a visit to this sprawling desert base to show her support for the 11,000 troops stationed here…[as she visits] Qatar and Jordan this week to promote education for adolescent girls.

Interesting that Schmitt is the pooler to a visit of one of the most important U.S. military bases for the war on terrorism--and one so sensitive that the Pentagon wouldn’t even speak it’s name for many years.

“This isn't an easy post,” she said of a base where temperatures soar above 120 degrees in the summer. “You guys are doing the tough work.” The sports bar—two-thirds empty but for the handpicked junior officers and enlisted troops seated at four tables, and with all TV's off Tuesday night—is one of the few on-post facilities in the Middle East where service members can buy alcoholic beverages; here the allowance is three drinks a day (beer, wine or shots of hard liquor), bar staff said. (The bar was closed for Michelle’s visit.)

Instead, before she arrived with O'Brien's camera crew in tow filming for his show, troops dug into scoops of Coldstone Creamery ice cream—choice of vanilla, pistachio or mocha—arranged by Mrs. Obama. Ice cream was inexplicably unavailable here for the past two months.

“Mrs. Obama's visit drew praise from the service members,” Schmitt reported. “It's great to see our leaderships here to support us,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Emmanuel Santillan, 29, from St. Croix, V.I. “We aren't forgotten.”