Putin approved election meddling; Ceasefire in Aleppo; China is arming its fake islands; Swarming drone boats just got a lot smarter; and just a bit more...

Vladimir Putin himself approved Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, senior U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News. “Now the U.S has solid information tying [the Russian president] to the operation, the intelligence officials say. Their use of the term ‘high confidence’ implies that the intelligence is nearly incontrovertible,” NBC reports. “The latest intelligence said to show Putin's involvement goes much further than the information the U.S. was relying on in October, when all 17 intelligence agencies signed onto a statement attributing the Democratic National Committee hack to Russia.” Read on, here.

The Kremlin denies it, AP reports.

After a day of chaos, violence and a new ceasefire for Aleppo, the first evacuees are finally departing the city. “At least 17 buses and 10 ambulances drove out of the rebel-held part of Aleppo on Thursday,” a Reuters reporter said. “Syrian state TV showed the convoy of ambulances followed by a long line of green buses driving from the Ramousah district next to the rebel-held area of Aleppo...State television reported that those leaving in the convoy were opposition fighters. Rebel officials have said that civilians who wish to leave will also be able to do so as part of the ceasefire and evacuation deal.”

But uncertainty looms, Reuters reports off word from Russian state media Tass that Washington and Moscow have yet again suspended talks on resolving the situation in Aleppo. And earlier in the morning, “ambulances trying to evacuate people came under fire from fighters loyal to the Syrian government, who injured three people.”

Still, the Syrian government has reportedly “guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families, who would be taken towards Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria which is outside government control.”

Along the way, Russia said it “would use drones to monitor rebels and their families being transported in buses and ambulances,” including those fleeing in a separate exodus “from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kefraya near Idlib that are besieged by rebels, according to a military media unit run by Hezbollah,” whose chief sponsor, Iran, had reportedly ended an earlier ceasefire on Wednesday.

Rebels are still holed up in a few districts of Aleppo, Reuters writes. And that includes Sukkari, where Syrian allied troops are advancing this morning. More here.

Elsewhere in Syria, ISIS suicide bombers are slowing the advance of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces toward Raqqa, Kurdish ARA News reports. The group has reportedly liberated some 600 km2 of land overall, and killed some 200 ISIS fighters since November 6. More here.

In Iraq, the slow business of clearing IEDs and various mines continues to consume the bulk of Iraqi special forces effort today, Iraqi news reports.

On the bright side, those special forces say they’ve taken back 40 of east Mosul’s 56 districts. And Iraq’s defense ministry says it killed 70 ISIS fighters west of Mosul in airstrikes on Wednesday. The total reportedly included “twenty senior leaders as well as their guards who were holding a meeting a few kilometers west of the town of Tal Abta to plan for Iraqi troops besieging the strategic town of Tal Afar.” More here.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is in London discussing the counter-ISIS war, the sixth meeting this year with alliance defense ministers. And it comes shortly after Carter made his last battlefield circulation to Iraq and Afghanistan before the end of the year.

“While I cannot speak for the next administration, I’m confident that based on the results we’re seeing and the strength of our coalition, the United States and its military will continue to be with you as a leading partner in this campaign,” Carter said in London.

AP has some questions for that next administration, including: “Will Trump withdraw support for U.S.-backed rebels groups in Syria, who have now lost the city of Aleppo? And if he does, will he join forces with Russia? How might such moves affect public support for the anti-IS coalition in Germany and elsewhere?” Read the rest, here.

From Defense One

The U.S. Navy’s Autonomous Swarm Boats Can Now Decide What to Attack // Patrick Tucker: In a recent demonstration, waterborne robots collaborated to identify, surround, and harass an enemy vessel.

The Invisible Costs of Cyber Weapons // Stanford University’s Herb Lin: For kinetic weapons like tanks, production costs generally outweigh research and development. For cyber weapons, R&D is almost everything.

Welcome to the Dec. 15 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would recognize the People’s Republic of China and sever relations with Taiwan. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)

Beijing is definitely militarizing its holdings in the South China Sea, Reuters reported Wednesday off fresh imagery from the Center for Strategic Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Writes Reuters: “AMTI said satellite images of islands China has built in the Spratlys showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes. Other images showed towers that likely contained targeting radar.”

CSIS: “AMTI began tracking the construction of identical, hexagon-shaped structures at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs in June and July. It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron Reefs.”

AMTI director Greg Poling said his team “spent months trying to figure out what the purposes of the structures was. ‘This is the first time that we’re confident in saying they are anti-aircraft and CIWS emplacements. We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there,’ he told Reuters. ‘This is militarization. The Chinese can argue that it’s only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and CIWS emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict.’”

The Chinese defense ministry’s reax: “As for necessary military installations, they are mainly for defence and self-protection and are legitimate and lawful. If someone makes a show of force at your front door, would you not ready your slingshot?”

Added a foreign ministry spokesman: “If China’s building of normal facilities and deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own islands is considered militarization, then what is the sailing of fleets into the South China Sea?”

The Philippines is also worried, AP reports: “If true, it is a big concern for us and the international community who uses the South China Sea lanes for trade. It would mean that the Chinese are militarizing the area, which is not good," said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. More here. And speaking of the Philippines, the country has just had a major economic aid package withheld by the U.S. over comments President Rody Duterte made earlier this week when he “bragged about personally killing people,” AFP reports. More on that scene, here.

Before we leave CSIS, they’ve released a series of essays looking at “three major issues: expanding conventional force structure, investing in nuclear forces, and reducing the training and administrative requirements that impede combat readiness,” written by Mark Cancian, Tom Karako, and Micah Murphy, respectively. It also marks the week two release—in their six-week series—analyzing major defense issues facing the incoming Trump White House. Check it out here.

How Mike Flynn’s carelessness with secret material undermined U.S. counterterror efforts. By inappropriately passing classified data to foreign military officers, the future national security adviser undermined the rickety, painstakingly built trust between U.S. intelligence agencies that makes Gen. Stan McChrystal’s JSOC “team of teams” concept so effective, argues Phillip Carter of the Center for New American Security. “11/ Agencies are like elephants; they have long memories. Flynn’s unauth intel sharing will reverberate for yrs,” he tweeted. “12/ IC agencies will likely become even cagier about teaming w/DoD (despite real value to US of these teams)” Read Carter’s whole tweetstorm, here.

Emoluments Watch: “Donald Trump’s overseas business partners say their companies have already benefited, or expect to gain, from their connection to the president-elect, with some hoping to build new projects under his brand and others seeing the value of their holdings rise.” That’s from the Wall Street Journal, here.

For what it’s worth, here’s another good who’s-who in the Trump cabinet, this time from ProPublica.

Also: Mattis’s time at the board of General Dynamics could haunt his bid to become Trump’s defense secretary, Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio reports: Recusing "himself for at least a year from decisions involving General Dynamics Corp.... would take Mattis out of the loop on billion-dollar decisions across the military services: The Pentagon may buy ground-warfare vehicles from General Dynamics for the 65,000 Army troops Trump has promised to add, and it may benefit from his pledge to expand the Navy to 350 vessels by supplying its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Virginia-class nuclear submarines.” Read on here.

And finally: “Stop calling us ‘warriors,’” writes Angry Staff Officer in a deep and much-tweeted-about dive into the history behind the term. “Warriors are not soldiers. Warriors don’t transition, because warriors are part of a class. Warriors don’t have tasks, because tasks are antithetical to the undisciplined and chaotic warrior.” Read it, here.