'82 percent approval rating'; A new ISIS battleground; China orders giant cargo planes; The threat the G20 missed; and a bit more.

A fairly unrevealing night for Clinton and Trump. Wednesday night’s “commander-in-chief” forum, hosted by NBC News, managed to do little more than affirm what most U.S. voters already knew—Clinton has a problem with short answers to questions about her private email server, while Trump adores Russian President Vladimir Putin (He has an “82 percent approval rating” and look at “some of the things that President Obama does”).

Continuing a months-long trend, Clinton offered far more detail than Trump on U.S. national security. The New York businessman underscored that his approach to Iraq’s problems (past and present) revolves almost 100 percent around oil, and displayed a spotty understanding of how U.S. generals are appointed. He explained to NBC’s Matt Lauer that he he might hire new generals at the Pentagon to advise him on the war against ISIS since Obama and Clinton had managed to reduce the current general officer corps to “rubble.” He also said he might have a secret plan to defeat ISIS, but he’s not going to reveal it just yet.

Earlier in the day, Trump had touted his plan to “rebuild” the U.S. military by expanding the U.S. Army active duty roster to 540,000; field 36 battalions of Marines; set up the Navy with 350 ships; and make sure the Air Force has 1,200 fighter jets to work with. (That last point, Aviation Week’s Lara Seligman reminded folks Tuesday, is a bit of a puzzler. Why? The Air Force already has some 1,700 aircraft.)

Noted Republican pollster Frank Luntz: “Yes, there’s a different standard on foreign policy for Candidate Trump than Clinton. He isn’t a lifelong politician.”

Trump also managed to lay another allegation on the Pentagon, saying that he learned at his (classified) intelligence briefings that Obama repeatedly bucked his advisers. How did he learn this? By reading briefers’ body language, he said in a remark that attracted lots of push-back from current and former military and intelligence professionals.

And he offered one of the more offensive lines of the night (certainly but hardly exclusively to female veterans and female reporters). Asked about sexual harassment in increasingly gender-integrated military units, he replied: what do you expect when you put men and women together?

Meanwhile, his opponent offered this whopper: “Clinton said there would ‘never’ be ground troops in Iraq and Syria again,” The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak and Nancy Youssef reported. “But there currently are nearly 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, some less than 50 miles from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, its capital in Iraq. And the Department of Defense has acknowledged sending at least 500 Special Forces into Syria, some of whom have moved with local forces within 20 miles of the ISIS capital city of Raqqa.”

The emerging battleground in the war on ISIS: “southern Syria, right along the borders of Jordan and the Israeli-held Golan Heights,” The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports this morning from Jordan. “What makes this particularly alarming is that militants in the mountainous area, known as the Yarmouk Basin, aren’t foreign jihadists from Europe or North Africa. They’re mostly local villagers, many of them former fighters of the Western-backed Syrian rebel alliance, the Free Syrian Army. That alone makes them a difficult target, and recent FSA offensives there had only limited success.” More here.

The Syrian army and its allies captured turf around the southern edge of Aleppo, building on last week’s gains that re-established a siege on the rebel-held portion of the key northern city, AP reports.

Also on Wednesday, “an Iraqi Shi’ite militia, the Harakat al-Nujaba, said it had sent an extra 1,000 fighters to southern Aleppo to reinforce positions the army and its allies had taken,” Reuters reported.

And hey, by the way: “What is Aleppo?” asked Libertarian 2016 contender Gary Johnson on MSNBC this morning.

Meantime, Syrian Kurds are assembling a draft constitution for a new federal government, with the Kurdish capital in Qamishli.

And life is returning to Jarablus after ISIS was pushed out in the 9-hour Turkey-backed offensive. AFP has more from the city, here.

From Defense One

China to Expand Military Reach with a Fleet of the World’s Largest Planes // Global Business Editor Marcus Weisgerber reports: Ukraine’s Antonov has entered a pact with a Chinese firm to restart production of the An-225.

The Global Threat That Went Undiscussed at the G20 Summit // Adm. (ret.) Dennis Blair: Our fight against cyber crime must grow beyond passive defense and unenforceable indictments — but it won’t if leaders don’t even talk about it.

Even Duterte’s Slurs Can’t Break US-Philippines Ties Cemented by Chinese Aggression // Quartz’ Steve Mollman: Attention is turning to the Scarborough Shoal, just west of the Philippines, where many fear Beijing will build more islands to expand its control of the South China Sea.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Caroline Houck, and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1923, seven U.S. Navy destroyers ran aground off California’s Honda Point. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)

Clapper at INSA. Opening an annual intelligence community conference in D.C. yesterday morning, Director for National Intelligence James Clapper quipped that with only four months left before the Obama administration ends, “the only thing we’ll be rolling out is me.”

He also warned that defeating ISIS wouldn’t end the cycle of extremism: “ISIS eventually will be suppressed but I think we will have more extremist organizations continuing to spawn that we will have to contend with, and we’re going to be in a perpetual state of suppression for some time.”

Even if Trump’s plan to demand that military leaders deliver a successful plan to defeat ISIS 30 days after his inauguration eliminates the group, “after ISIL is gone, you can expect some other terrorist entity to arise,” Clapper said.

One other cheery assessment from the DNI: “We’re facing the most complex and diverse array of global threats that I’ve seen in my 53 years or so of intel business. We are living in what I call a world of unpredictable instability, in which two-thirds of the nations around the world are at risk for some instability in the next few years.”

Obama’s parting message for ASEAN: The U.S. pivot to Asia will not end any time soon. The president walked a fine line during his recent swing through the Asia-Pacific—which began in China before moving on to Laos—looking to not ruffle too many diplomatic feathers in the wake of the July arbitration court ruling at the Hague, which took the wind out of Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Writes the Times: “Mr. Obama drew attention to the ruling at the Asean meeting, saying, ‘I recognize this raises tensions.’ For some of China’s neighbors, including Laos, the host of the meeting, increasing tensions is the last thing they want to do. Even the Philippines, which brought the suit that led to the tribunal ruling, sounded a more conciliatory note. A spokesman for the president, Rodrigo Duterte, said that Mr. Duterte wanted to take a ‘soft-landing strategy and talk peace with China.’”

And Obama met briefly with the Philippines’ foul-mouthed President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday, WSJ reported.  

ICYMI: The U.S. military says it conducted two “self-defense” airstrikes against Somalia’s al-Shabaab early this week, killing four near Torotorow, in the Lower Shabelle region, on Monday, Reuters reported Wednesday.

In case you were curious, the U.S. is still striking al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, too—killing 13 in three separate attacks in the past two weeks, CENTCOM announced Tuesday. The curious point about these strikes, according to The Long War Journal: “According to CENTCOM, the US has launched 15 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen this year. However, The Long War Journal has recorded 25 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in 2016. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that CENTCOM may not have released all of its data. It is also possible that the CIA instead executed some of the airstrikes, or that attacks attributed in the press to the US military were conducted by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.” More here.

The U.S. Air Force is still notably reliant on contractors to operate its drones,  The New York Times reported earlier this week. “As the Obama administration has accelerated its campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya over the past 10 months, the Pentagon has added four drones flown by contractors to the roughly 60 that are typically flown every day by uniformed Air Force personnel. Over the next two years, the Pentagon plans to add six more operated by contractors, the officials said. The number and identities of contractors working on the drone flights are considered classified information, the Air Force said. But Pentagon officials said there are at least several hundred contractors, many of them former drone or fighter pilots who are making double or triple their military salaries.”

And finally: 60 years ago a runaway drone nearly caused a Cold War air battle, the BBC reminds us in this retrospective from August: “At 11.34am on Thursday 16 August 1956, a special aircraft was launched from a naval air station in California. It was a Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter plane, but refitted as an unmanned vehicle – a drone. Painted bright red, it was about to be used as a target during a missile test. It would take off and fly at a leisurely pace over the Pacific Ocean before being blown to smithereens. At least, that was the plan.”

Thus began a race to down the darn thing, which was not as successful as anyone involved would have liked: “Firing a salvo of rockets into an enemy bomber formation was one thing, it seems, but trying to hit a small single target was quite another, as the Air Force found out that day.” So what happened from there? Worth the click, here.