China lands airplane on fake island; More countries break with Iran; Hackers cause power outage; ISIS’ favorite app has some flaws; and a bit more.

In a provocative first, Beijing landed a plane on one of its fake islands in the South China Sea. “Military flights will inevitably follow,” Reuters writes, after China “confirmed that a test flight by a civilian plane landed on an artificial island built in the Spratlys, the first time Beijing has used a runway in the area. Vietnam, which said the plane landed on Jan. 2, launched a formal diplomatic protest; Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said Manila was planning to do the same. Both have claims to the area that overlap with China.”

About those runways: “Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) long and is one of three China was constructing on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago. The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport craft as well as China's best jet fighters, giving them a presence deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia that they have lacked until now.” (ICYMI: here’s a U.S. Navy video of the islands from last year.)

The State Department reax: China’s move “raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” said spokesman John Kirby.

What’s China’s likely next step? “Once they’ve tested it with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power — Su-27s and Su-33s — and they will station them there permanently,” said one defense analyst. More here.

China just commissioned a new high-tech spy ship, at least its fourth over a decade-plus, writes David Axe for The Daily Beast. “The Type 815 surveillance vessel Neptune, featuring sensitive electronic listening devices, could help Beijing further improve its already impressive ability to gather intelligence on its rivals, in particular the U.S. Navy.”

The specs: “Like her sister vessels—one older ship dating to 1999, two newer ones that entered service in 2009 and mid-2015, plus at least one more Type 815 still under construction—Neptune is roughly 400 feet long. The ship boasts several large domes arranged along the superstructure that apparently house antennae for intercepting radar and radio signals broadcast by the military forces of potential enemies. China’s intelligence analysts at sea and on land can then interpret the signals in order to determine the capabilities of other countries’ ships, planes, and military hardware.”

The early takeaway: “The Chinese spy ships’ activities wouldn’t be so offensive to Washington if Beijing weren’t itself so sensitive about the activities of America’s own spy ships—of which the United States has slightly more than China does—in waters near China.” Read the rest, here.

And Beijing just built its own “Wild Weasel” jet to knock out surface-to-air missile batteries, Popular Science reports. “The J-16D is a J-16/Su-30 multi-role fighter optimized for ‘Wild Weasel’ missions. Starting in the Vietnam War, Wild Weasels are fighters designed to take on surface-to-air missile batteries in a SEAD (Supression of Enemy Air Defense) role. Armed with anti-radiation missiles (which lock on and target radars by their electronic emissions) and electronic intelligence and electronic warfare jammers, they are designed to engage and suppress defenses, opening the way for traditional air attacks.” Find a handy diagram of the aircraft and a bit more, here.

Does the U.S. Navy have enough ships to counter an increasingly assertive Chinese Navy? The fact is the service and its Pacific Fleet component have fewer ships now than in the mid-’90s: 182 for the fleet compared to 192 two decades ago, and 272 Navy ships today versus nearly 340 in 1998, the Associated Press reports.

But that’s just fine with its commander, Adm. Scott Swift. AP: “Swift said he would rather have the Navy he has today — and its advanced technology — than the Navy of two decades ago. He pointed to the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer upgraded with new ballistic missile defenses, as well as three new stealth destroyers, the DDG-1000, in the pipeline, as examples.”

On the Chinese side: “China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft, according to the Pentagon’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy report released in August. China’s coast guard and other maritime law enforcement fleet, meanwhile, has upward of 200 ships — more than the combined fleets of neighbors with competing claims to tiny islands in the East and South China Seas.” More on the “great power” naval dynamics at play in the Pacific, here.

Kuwait pulled its ambassador to Tehran this morning, making it now the fifth country to back Saudi Arabia’s chilling of relations with Iran. Kuwait joins Jordan, the UAE, Sudan, and Bahrain in partial or full severance of diplomatic ties with the Shi’a nation, triggered by Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday. AP lays out the regional players and where they stand in the ongoing crisis, here.

The Saudis had threatened to kill the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, before but didn’t. So why now? It could be read as a “demonstration of strength” in “a very insecure period” for the Kingdom. The Daily Beast digs in, here.

Did Iran’s leaders overplay their hand in response to the execution? Quite possibly, writes the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran, where the Shiite theocracy finds “themselves mired in a new crisis at a time they had been hoping to emerge from international sanctions as an accepted global player.”

The bottom line at present: “We are moving increasingly towards conflict,” said former member of the Iranian National Security Council, Aziz Shahmohammadi. “This is bad for the entire region — in Syria, in Yemen, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon and Iraq as well. Cutting ties is fanning the flames in a region already on fire.”

From Defense One

Five big national security questions for 2016 from the Council on Foreign Relations’ James Lindsay start with “Are we on the verge of a global economic slowdown, and if so, what will be its consequences?” Read the rest, here.

For the first time, the U.S. is on Russia’s list of top security threats. While previous versions of Moscow’s national security strategy, last updated in 2009, have noted U.S. moves and capabilities with interest, the new document labels America a threat. From Quartz, here.

ISIS's favorite messaging app has some flaws. “It’s like coming up and finding a submarine where the doors are made out of Saran Wrap. I guess if you use enough Saran Wrap you could build a pretty secure submarine; it doesn’t mean that it’s going to sink. But it does mean it’s not something I would want to trust with my life.” That and other choice quotes about the difficulties of encryption from The Atlantic, here.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Get your friends off on the right foot in 2016 by telling them to subscribe here: Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know:

The U.S. Army just sent up the Pentagon chain its plan to incorporate women into the ranks of special operations, infantry and armor positions, Army Times reports, “one month after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced his decision to lift all gender-based restrictions on military service starting in January.”

Short on details, long on review: “The plan, which is supposed to outline how the Army will integrate the newly opened occupations and positions, is now being reviewed and discussed as part of the implementation working group co-chaired by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Army officials could not say when the plan might be rolled out or approved by senior DoD leaders.” More here.

ICYMI: The first known hacker-caused power outage occurred in Ukraine, Ars Technica reports days after the initial story broke across more mainstream media outlets, including Reuters, in late December. “On Monday, researchers from security firm iSIGHT Partners said they had obtained samples of the malicious code that infected at least three regional operators. They said the malware led to ‘destructive events’ that in turn caused the blackout. If confirmed it would be the first known instance of someone using malware to generate a power outage.”

John Hultquist, head of iSIGHT's cyber espionage intelligence practice called it a “milestone because we've definitely seen targeted destructive events against energy before—oil firms, for instance—but never the event which causes the blackout…It's the major scenario we've all been concerned about for so long.” That, here.

Apropos of nothing: Russia’s director of military intelligence died unexpectedly at the age of 58, WSJ’s Paul Sonne reported from Moscow. “Col. Gen. Igor Sergun had run the Main Intelligence Directorate of Russia’s General Staff, known as the GRU, since late 2011...Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a statement released to the Interfax news agency, said Col. Gen. Sergun died suddenly on Sunday. Mr. Shoigu’s statement offered no additional details.”

A bit more on the deceased former chief: He “joined the Soviet military in 1973 and became director of the secretive GRU and deputy chief of Russia’s general staff in 2011, according to his official biography on the Russian Defense Ministry website. He served in military intelligence since 1984.”

For what it’s worth: “Last year, the U.S. and European Union sanctioned Col. Gen. Sergun after Russia annexed Crimea and backed a rebel uprising in east Ukraine.” More, though not a lot, here.

P4, Panetta to talk Benghazi in a classified setting with lawmakers this week, the House Select Committee on the 2012 attack announced Monday. Retired Gen. David Petraeus ducks behind closed doors on Wednesday; former CIA Director and Pentagon chief Leon Panetta will hit up the panel on Friday. The Hill has more, here.

Lastly today—Have revolution, need snacks: When your anti-government militia wants to fight to the last man but forgot that it means fighting to the last Dorito, you might be looking at the armed protest unfolding in eastern Oregon. That’s one (of many) takeaways from the militiamen occupying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building near Burns, Ore., People magazine reports after one of the protesters posted to Facebook: “We don’t want your money. If you have supplies or snacks or anything that may be useful to this stand then please send them to the address above…” More, here.