Confirmation bias turns lethal; F-35Bs practice beach assault; Refugees pour out of besieged Aleppo; The moral dilemma of serving under Trump; and just a bit more...

Fifty thousand people have now fled the two-week carnage in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. That as “government forces pressed an assault in the divided city, [while] regime artillery fire killed at least 21 civilians in east Aleppo on Wednesday morning,” AFP reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Government forces and allied fighters have seized a third of the rebel-held east of Aleppo since they began an operation to recapture all of the battered second city just over a fortnight ago...In the newly recaptured neighbourhood of Jabal Badro, hundreds of people massed to board government buses taking people to west Aleppo.”

Death toll: “The monitor says nearly 300 civilians, including 33 children, have been killed in east Aleppo since the latest government assault began on November 15. Another 48 civilians have been killed in west Aleppo.”

The response from Washington? Lots of discussions, but little to show for it, AP reported Tuesday evening.

The UN Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting later today, as well as standing audience to “a briefing from a UN humanitarian official and the UN's peace envoy Staffan de Mistura.” Not that anyone expects much out of that. More here.

Did Israel carry out an airstrike just west of Damascus? It appears that way, AFP reports off word from Syrian state-run media, SANA. “The air force of the Israeli enemy today launched two missiles from Lebanese air space,” SANA reported, noting the targets were in the Sabbura area west of Damascus.

Adds AP: “The Israeli military declined to comment, but Israel is widely believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria in the past few years that have targeted advanced weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles. The arms are believed to be destined for the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militant group, a close ally of the Syrian government and a fierce enemy of Israel. The strikes come days after Israeli aircraft hit a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside Syria, killing four Islamic State-affiliated militants inside after they opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights.” More here.

“Confirmation bias” turns lethal. CENTCOM released its investigation into what happened during a mid-September airstrike in Syria that killed dozens of Syrian troops. The cause, according to the report: multiple human errors, the Washington Post reports: “U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard 'Tex' Coe, the officer who oversaw the investigation, told reporters that intelligence assets monitored a vehicle believed to have been aligned with the Islamic State in eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zour province, and followed it to a position with dozens of troops, tents, entrenchments and at least one tank.”

What happened next: “On Sept. 17, that position was struck by F-16s, F-18s, drones and A-10 ground attack aircraft, dropping 34 precision-guided munitions and firing 380 rounds of 30 mm cannon fire within the span of an hour, killing dozens of Syrians. Coe said the presence of the vehicle, compounded by the troops’ lack of uniforms or identifying features, gave the targeting personnel watching the area what he called ‘confirmation bias,’ and they concluded they were looking at an Islamic State encampment.”

Despite all that, Coe maintained “there was no misconduct or wrongdoing by the pilots and intelligence personnel responsible for the strikes,” WaPo writes. “They get it right more often than not, but this time they came up short,” he added. Read the rest, here.

Fighting in and around Mosul has left nearly 650,000 residents without water, adding up 40 percent of the city, Iraqi news and al-Jazeera report. The dire shortages of food and water in the city are “very worrying,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said. “In a worst case, we envision that families who are already in trouble in Mosul will find themselves in even more acute need. The longer it takes to liberate Mosul, the harder conditions become for families.” More from Reuters, here.

Iraqi troops are finding more mass graves in the vicinity of Mosul, The New York Times reports.

Before we leave Iraq this morning, check out a roll-up of the weapons of Iraqi special forces—whose faces are generously blacked out—in the first of an upcoming series of reports from Armament Research Services.

From Defense One

A Glimpse At How the F-35 Will Help the Marines Storm the Beach // Patrick Tucker: In a California demonstration, the short-takeoff fighters escorted troop-carrying V-22s into simulated hostile territory.

The US Military Has a Pretty Good Plan to Keep Its Advantage. Trump Shouldn’t Mess With It // Theodore R. Johnson: The Third Offset needs help, not replacement, to secure the long-term competitive advantage of the U.S. armed forces.

How the Arctic Could Help Warm US-Russian Relations // Caroline Houck: U.S. Coast Guard commandant says cooperating on mass search-and-rescue exercises and other shared interests could build bridges.

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1942, a smaller Japanese group of destroyers defeated a U.S. cruiser-destroyer force at the Battle of Tassafaronga. (Send your friends this link: And let us know your news:

Congress reaches agreement on NDAA. The House could pass a unified version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act as soon as Friday. The highlights:

  • Troops would get the largest pay raise — 2.1 percent — in years, Stars and Stripes reports. Pay raises have been below 2 percent since 2011.
  • Boost endstrength by adding 3,000 Marines, 4,000 airmen, and 1,000 soldiers. The bill also retains 15,000 soldiers that were set to be cut, according to Breaking Defense.
  • The Pentagon’s acquisition office is about to get reorganized. Come 2018, the position of undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics will be split in two undersecretary positions — one for acquisition and sustainment and the other for research and engineering. Frank Kendall, the current undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics, had argued against this.
  • Lawmakers have drafted legislation to create a Pentagon chief technology officer.
  • The bill does not include any of a House-proposed $18 billion weapons increase for fighter jets, helicopters or ships, according to Cowen and Company.
  • The F-35 program office (which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wanted to kill) is retained.
  • U.S. Cyber Command would be promoted to a full, unified combatant command — and DoD would be required to start moving to separate the dual-hat relationship between NSA and CyberCom. (Politico)

The moral dilemma of serving under Trump. David Barno and Nora Bensahel, writing at War on the Rocks: “Ever since the surprise election of Donald Trump, a debate has flared within the national security community about whether or not to serve in his administration. This is one of the most important dilemmas to challenge our profession in years, if not decades. The president-elect’s character, policies, and campaign rhetoric as well as the divisive views of his close advisors makes the decision to serve in a Trump administration agonizingly difficult for many dedicated and principled national security professionals.” Barno and Bensahel offer a good discussion and a good digest of others’ writings on the subject (including early-to-the-party Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare). Read it, here.

Noted: Trump, whose business empire threatens to put every foreign-policy decision under a conflict-of-interest cloud (here’s a crib sheet of specific examples that have popped up so far, via The Atlantic), now tweets that he’s going to do something about it.

Peter Singer’s insta-take: “So long as Trump is aware he is earning $ from his businesses, he doesn’t just have a conflict of interest — he is flouting the Constitution.” Translation: the president-elect must sell off his assets and put the money in a blind trust, not just hand off the company to his kids.

U.S. Army finds lots of gaps in its cyber ops: In an 11-day multinational war game that “evaluated 41 concepts and capabilities including robotics, electronic warfare, defensive cyberspace operations, expeditionary mission command and systems to counter drones,” the Army’s new Rapid Capabilities Office “confirmed major gaps in capabilities that must be remedied,” Bloomberg reports. “The war game’s results will be melded with feedback from industry gleaned by a new emerging technologies director and insights from recent visits to universities such as Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.”

Europe ups defense-research spending. Reuters: “The European Union unveiled its biggest defense funding and research plan in more than a decade on Wednesday to reverse billions in cuts and send a message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump that it wants to pay for its own security. AP adds: “The European Commission said the multibillion-euro plan would fund research into areas like encrypted software or robotics and boost investment in joint projects across member states such as drones or helicopters. It also aims to ease rules restricting defense procurement across borders, improve industry standards and adapt policies like the EU's space program to security priorities.”

Also in Europe, Germany just arrested what it called an “Islamist mole” from inside its spy agency. Wall Street Journal, here.

The U.S. effort to help India build a flattop hits snags, The Wall Street Journal reports this morning. U.S. naval engineers were surprised to find that “the carrier wouldn’t be operational for up to a decade,” it lacks any “small missile system to defend itself,” and has “a limited ability to launch sorties and no defined strategy for how to use the ship in combat.”

What’s currently on the table: “The U.S. has agreed to sell New Delhi everything from attack helicopters to artillery. Washington has approved proposals by Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. to make advanced jet fighters in India. And in August, the two countries signed a military logistics-sharing accord.”

The big concern there, WSJ writes, is that “New Delhi’s insistence on building complex military gear largely from scratch, a legacy of its period of nonalignment, has led to severe delays in modernizing its carriers, jet fighters and nuclear submarines and limited its ability to fight.”

Compare U.S., Chinese and Indian carriers via a nifty graphic from the WSJ illustration team, here. Read the full story, here.

The Philippine armed forces have wrapped a five-day siege against Islamic extremists of the Maute group, a southern-based insurgency that’s pledged allegiance to ISIS, Reuters reports. “The military stepped up its offensive after the weekend, pounding rebels holed up in a disused municipal hall with artillery and bombs dropped from aircraft. The army said 30 security forces were wounded and 61 rebels killed in the operation… The siege ended as Duterte visited injured soldiers in Lanao del Sur province, where seven of his advance security party were wounded on Tuesday, when suspected Maute militias set off a bomb under their truck.” Story, here.

Lastly today: The FDA just cleared MDMA, the illegal party drug, for PTSD-treatment trials, The New York Times reported Tuesday. They open their story with the tale of Iraq-and-Afghan-war vet C. J. Hardin, who “wound up hiding from the world in a backwoods cabin in North Carolina. Divorced, alcoholic and at times suicidal, he had tried almost all the accepted treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder: psychotherapy, group therapy and nearly a dozen different medications.”

Hardin joined a small study in 2013 to test the effects of MDMA. His verdict: “It changed my life...It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward.”

After Tuesday’s announcement from the FDA, “large-scale, Phase 3 clinical trials of the drug” have been approved, “a final step before the possible approval of Ecstasy as a prescription drug,” the Times writes. Full story, here.