GOP debate shifts to military and foreign policy; Washington, Moscow craft Syria plan; China fires powerful rocket; Kabul security forces open fire on protesters; And a bit more.

It was billed as an economic debate, but Republican 2016 presidential candidates spent a good amount of time talking about the military Tuesday night. Twelve GOP candidates were in Milwaukee on Veterans Day eve for the two-panel debate hosted by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal.

But will all the mentions of the military and veterans prompt a real national security debate among 2016 candidates? Not likely, writes Defense One’s Molly O’Toole. “Veterans Day underscores how the public and politicos focus on manufactured patriotism instead of actual national security experience and policy specifics,” she writes. More here.

“The [debate] shifted from economic policy to military discussion after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tied the two together, promising to plus-up defense spending because ‘we can’t have an economy if we’re not safe,’” Military Times reports. That prompted Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to fire back: “It’s not conservative if you keep adding programs you can’t pay for...You can be strong without being involved in every civil war in the world.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in turn, mocked Paul by saying “If you think that defending the nation is expensive, then try not paying for it.” More here.

In the undercard session of the debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked tough on China and its man-made islands in the South China Sea.

“Christie argued that, thanks to the current administration, China does not take the U.S. seriously. He'd change that, he said, by showing them cyberwarfare ‘like they have never seen before’ and by flying Air Force One over the South China Sea,” the Washington Post reports.

Clinton reveals plan for vets—While the GOP candidates slugged it out in Milwaukee, democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton unveiled her plan for veterans and military personnel. “[T]he former secretary of state’s plan refutes Republican proposals to outsource much of VA’s operations, labeling such a move as ‘privatization’ of the department that could leave veterans ‘vulnerable to a health care market poorly suited to their needs,’” Military Times reports.

“VA must maintain the ultimate responsibility of coordinating and ensuring comprehensive and quality health care for every veteran and the specialized services that they deserve — critical functions that would disappear if the VA were privatized,” her plan states. Clinton also discusses veteran suicides, GI Bill benefits, military personnel policies and military health care in her plan here.

Moscow floated its plan for Syria’s future on Wednesday calling for a new Syrian constitution in 18 months “that would be put to a popular referendum and be followed by an early presidential election,” AP reports. The White House, on the other hand is working its own “dual-track” plan—with 50 special operators on the ground as State Secretary John Kerry hammers out the diplomacy angle in Vienna.

The chief obstacle to both plans, however, is that diplomats and U.S. intelligence analysts harbor extreme doubts over whether Syria can even survive as an independent country. In Russia’s case, Syrian opposition groups want Assad to step down from power—something Moscow did not include in their blueprint (favoring elections); and in the case of the U.S., its military plan for Syria with that modest contingent of special operators appears on its face that it will hardly be enough to halt the bloodshed that’s dragged on for more than four years, The New York Times’ David Sanger and Helene Cooper report.

But the U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter isn’t opposed to sending in more SOF—he’ll just need to pinpoint more local forces to link up with. And that’s an incredibly difficult prospect at this stage, Sanger and Cooper write, since “Eventually, American and Russian officials will have to share lists about the groups that they support and that could be credible interlocutors for a cease-fire and political solution. But the United States has declined to do so, for fear that the Russians or Mr. Assad would immediately target the groups for attacks.”

Russia is looking to capitalize on what it views as “momentum” generated by recent gains from Assad’s military; but since entering the Syrian fray, its most notable gain occurred just this week when Assad’s troops, backed by Hezbollah and Russian airstrikes, cleared the Islamic State from their two-year siege of the Kweires Airport east of Aleppo late Monday.

Back in the U.S., Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate candidates floated a few plans of their own for Syria—from Donald Trump’s plan to let Russia do all the dirty work, which Jeb Bush likened to Trump trying to play Monopoly with the country, to Carly Fiorina’s plea for “a no-fly zone in Syria because Russia cannot tell the United States of America where and when to fly our planes.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, however, took particular issue with what’s involved in implementing a no-fly zone even in Iraq: “When you think it's going to be a good idea to have a no-fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes. If you're ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq.” 

The real problem with a NFZ: put simply, it’s a “major intervention,” argues Dominic Tierney, associate professor of political science, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writing for The Atlantic. Tierney carries on the dialogue started by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in his deep dive into the rise of ISIS and the complexities of the Syrian battlespace, including “safe zones in the north and south, where humanitarian assistance can be directed, Syrian refugees can return, and political compromise can be rediscovered.”

Tierney: “If the U.S. and its partners create a safe zone, they are responsible for the consequences. The international community cannot encourage or pressure vulnerable civilians to gather in one place inside of a war zone—let alone return home from relative safety abroad—unless their protection is guaranteed… Safe zones can work in a humanitarian crisis if great powers and regional actors are united and committed to protecting civilians.” The fact of the matter is, he writes, “These conditions don’t exist in Syria.”

So what’s his solution? Read on to find out.

From Defense One

The U.S. Air Force just might delay the retirement of its A-10 “Warthogs” after all. The U.S. airstrike campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, American troops staying in Afghanistan longer, and militant activity across Africa are all contributing to a shift in the Air Force’s contentious retirement plan for the cheap, slow-flying, but highly effective attack plane—and just weeks after the Pentagon announced it sent A-10s to Turkey to fight ISIS. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber has more on Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, speaking Tuesday in Washington.

President Obama is now poised to sign the defense authorization bill despite its restrictions on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the White House said Tuesday. Last week the White House wouldn’t rule out a second veto over the strictures, which would effectively put a legislative freeze on the president’s efforts to close the military prison in Cuba, but lawmakers made clear to Defense One’s Politics Reporter Molly O’Toole that they wouldn’t be changing the policy language. In the end, the president is expected to sign the NDAA, locking those obstacles into law. O’Toole lays out the implications of the bill for the military and the way forward for closing Gitmo, in so far as one still remains, here.

Got cyber skills? The Department of Homeland Security wants you—and a couple hundred others like you to fill what it hopes will be 1,000 new cybersecurity positions across its agencies. NextGov’s Jack Moore has the story, here.

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

In the wake of the Russian crash that killed 224 people when it was violently brought down over the Sinai, British Chancellor George Osborne says the U.K. is “substantially increase[ing] the number of people across all three secret intelligence agencies who investigate, analyze and help disrupt terrorists plots,” Reuters reported Tuesday. That news comes as Britain prepares to unveil its Strategic Defence and Security Review “expected to set out Britain's military capability priorities for the next five years.” More here.

After two days of global outcry, Egyptian security officials released one of its own journalists detained over the weekend for writing about an alleged coup against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. WaPo has more, here.

But Egypt-watchers should expect more self-destruction from Sissi in the coming weeks. Why? Sissi “has failed spectacularly when it comes to learning the lessons of the Mubarak era,” writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook. “One need not have some special insight or training to understand that all has not been well in Egypt:  The garish Sisi-mania of 2013, the Jacobin-like nationalist discourse, the scores upon scores who have been arrested, and the intimidation of the press.”

The unfortunate result, writes Cook, is that Egypt now “combines the worst of all possible worlds: A flailing, groping, vainglorious effort to establish legitimacy and political control that does precisely the opposite.” More, here.

Did China test a satellite-killing rocket? Maybe. It launched something from the Korla Missile Test Complex in western China on Oct. 30. “It’s possible China just tested a powerful new rocket capable of blasting into space with little notice and knocking out America’s low-orbiting satellites,” The Daily Beast reports.

The Chinese government says it was a missile defense test. “But there’s a catch. In terms of hardware, there’s essentially no difference between a defensive missile-intercepting rocket and an offensive anti-satellite rocket, or ASAT.” More here.

Kabul security forces opened fire on protesters this morning, wounding more than a dozen, the Associated Press reports. The recent beheadings of four men, two women and a 9-year-old child in south central Afghanistan’s Zabul province sparked a Wednesday morning protest that attracted roughly 10,000 citizens to the capital—so much so that “demonstrators tried to scale the walls of the palace at Pashtunistan Square,” prompting troops to open fire to disperse the chaos.

“Kabul's deputy police chief Gul Agha Rouhani said security forces shot in the air to disperse the protesters trying to scale the palace walls. He could not confirm reports of injuries,” writes AP.

The seven murdered Afghans, from the minority Hazara community, “were seized in neighboring Ghazni province up to six months ago, though it was never clear who was behind the abductions,” AP notes. “Afghanistan's spy agency dismissed Taliban claims that affiliates of the Islamic State group were behind the killings. In the past five days, rival Taliban groups have been fighting each other in the area where the bodies were found. On Tuesday, the bodies were brought 380 kilometers (240 miles) to Kabul from Zabul Wednesday.”

And here is a brief clip of the morning protests as hundreds of Afghans marched alongside the coffin of the 9-year-old girl.

This Veterans Day the White House is unveiling a plan “that allows veterans to receive private medical care, speed the appeal process for disability claims and pass legislation aiming to improve the quality of schools that serve veterans,” the NYTs reports. “The Obama administration is also set to unveil a new tool to allow veterans to compare college and university options, modeled after a college scorecard website it started in September to provide information to prospective students and their parents about annual costs, graduation rates and salaries after graduation.” More on that push, here.

Turning a spotlight on the prisoner of war mentality. For many vets, the “50-meter” target they face every morning when they wake is PTSD, survivor’s guilt and the kind of desperation about all of it that can lead to suicide. And one new short film aims to enlighten audiences to all of those dynamics in the hopes of forging a safe way ahead for the thousands departing service each year.

The roughly 10-minute short features former Army Ranger Josh Kelly (perhaps most notably of the “Transformers” series and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and it’s titled “Prisoner of War.”

The plot tease: “This short narrative follows an American veteran who is held prisoner and questioned by a sadistic interrogator, revealing the truth that the enemy is not always who we expect it to be.” Check it out for free here, or dig a little more into the issues surrounding the film over here.