Advances, strikes and an ominous warning in Syria. Amid blinding fog, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have retaken a key citadel in northern Syria as they continue to push toward ISIS-held Raqqa, Reuters reports this morning. “The Jabar citadel on the banks of Lake Assad was taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance on Thursday, militia spokesman Talal Silo said. It is located near a dam on the Euphrates River that the U.S.-backed alliance also aims to capture in the current phase of its campaign…Silo said SDF advances had been slowed by thick fog that had allowed Islamic State insurgents to use infiltration tactics to attack SDF positions...The SDF launched a multi-stage operation in Raqqa province in November aimed ultimately at capturing the city from Islamic State. The first phase gained territory to the north of the city and the current phase is targeting areas to the west of it.” More here.
The Pentagon late Thursday confirmed a few recent strikes on al-Qaeda in Syria. Spokesman Peter Cook: “On Jan. 1, U.S. forces struck two al-Qaida vehicles that had departed a large al-Qaida headquarters near Sarmada. On Jan. 3, U.S. forces struck the headquarters compound itself, including multiple vehicles and structures. Al-Qaida’s foreign terrorist fighter network used this headquarters as a gathering place, and their leaders directed terrorist operations out of this location.”
Initial reports indicated that the “strikes hit killed five al-Qaida militants and destroyed two vehicles on Jan. 1, and killed more than 15 al-Qaida militants and destroyed six vehicles, and nine structures on Jan. 3.”
The Syrian government warned Thursday that it could soon ramp up its airstrikes in the same province that it’s been sending rebels evacuated from cities like Damascus and Aleppo. "Ali Haidar, who as national reconciliation minister has been responsible for negotiating local deals, said he expected more accords in coming months to send thousands of fighters to Idlib from areas near Damascus and south of it, as the army advances. But in an interview in Damascus, he said the state could not allow Idlib to remain in insurgent hands indefinitely. Unless there was an international deal that addressed the situation, "then the other option is to go to an open battle with them. The Syrian state is clear in its policy when it said it will not forego any patch of Syria, and I think Idlib is one of the coming hot areas,' Haidar told Reuters. He said foreign fighters must leave and rebel supply lines via Turkey be cut off." More here.
For the second time in less than a year, Russia says it’s withdrawing some of its troops in Syria, according to the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. Reuters: “In remarks shown on Russian state television, he stressed the importance of Russian military support given to Damascus in “the war on terrorism and the need to develop military cooperation” with Russia even after 'the victory over terrorism.' However, Russia has previously failed to deliver on promises to pull back its forces from Syria. Moscow announced a reduction of its military deployment in the country in March last year, but continued supply runs by land and air before sending significant reinforcements in October.” Read the rest, here.
Top intelligence leaders say Trump’s tweets could hurt national security. After enduring barbs from the president-elect, who has repeatedly pooh-poohed the intelligence community’s consensus view that Russia meddled in the U.S. election, ODNI James Clapper, NSA/CyberCom’s Adm. Mike Rogers, and even a few senators used a Senate hearing to describe the harm that this “disparagement” could cause.
Clapper warned that Donald Trump’s comments could “hurt the nation’s ability to work with other nations to confront security threats like ISIS and the continued threat of radical Islamist terror. ‘I have received many expressions of concern from foreign counterparts of what has been interpreted as the disparagement of the intelligence community,’ said Clapper.”
Rogers, meanwhile, suggested that Trump’s evident lack of respect for the IC could drive talented people to leave. “What we do is in no small part driven in part by the confidence of our leaders in what we do,” said Rogers. “And without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk.” (Vox, here.)
Clapper also promised that next week’s planned release of a public version of the IC report on Russian meddling would further illuminate just why he and the nation’s spies are so confident in it. Read Patrick Tucker’s take, here.
McCain’s takeaway: Russian hacks should galvanize U.S. cyberdefense policy. Via Defense News: “Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation,” said [Sen. John] McCain, R-Ariz. “There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference. That is why Congress must set partisanship aside, follow the facts, and work together to devise comprehensive solutions to deter, defend against, and, when necessary, respond to foreign cyberattacks.”
And this: “Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.” Washington Post, here.
Next up! AP: “President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a role that would thrust him into the center of the intelligence community that Trump has publicly challenged, a person with knowledge of the decision said Thursday. Coats served as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee before retiring from Congress last year.” Read on, here.
From Defense One
Intelligence Chief Sets High Expectations For Next Week's Hacking Report // Patrick Tucker: James Clapper promises more details of Russian influence operations aimed at U.S. election.
How Many Airstrikes Did US Forces Execute in 2016? // Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson: Estimates from government releases show Iraqi and Syrian targets got hit the hardest.
The Global Business Brief: January 5 // Marcus Weisgerber: Most defense stocks aren’t outperforming the market; analyzing Trump's tweets; up-armored coffee maker.
Welcome to the Jan. 6 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Bradley Peniston and Marcus Weisgerber. On this day in 1919, former Rough Rider and president Theodore Roosevelt died suddenly in New York. (Enjoy the D Brief? Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Iraqi troops have entered Mosul from the north for the first time, “part of a new phase in the battle for the city that also saw elite forces bridge a river under cover of darkness in an unprecedented night raid,” Reuters reports.
ISIS fighters are still lethal across the country, particularly some 200 kms south of Mosul where fighters “attacked an Iraqi army outpost and a police station near the city of Tikrit on Friday, killing at least four soldiers and wounding 12 others.”
Meantime, "U.S. forces located south of Mosul fired HIMARS vehicle-mounted rockets at Islamic State targets in a northern district on Friday... [and] Iraqi forces have so far recaptured more than half of eastern Mosul, but they have yet to cross the Tigris to face insurgents who are still firmly in control of the western half of the city."
In case you were curious, with the reports this week that U.S. forces have entered Mosul for the first time, casualties are naturally on the rise, as well, Military Times reported Thursday. "At least 14 American military personnel have been wounded in combat since the start of October while battling Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to Defense Department data reviewed by Military Times. The sudden increase accounts for nearly half of the 30 wounded-in-action reports that the U.S. has publicly acknowledged since the ISIS campaign began in August 2014... It's a sensitive topic for the Pentagon and the White House, which has made painstaking efforts to minimize any perception that American forces are actively engaged in ground combat despite steadily increasing force levels in both theaters where now more than 5,500 U.S. troops are deployed." More here.
Outgoing Air Force secretary makes argument for more airmen. When Deborah Lee James came to the Pentagon three years ago, the Air Force was shrinking. Now, the plan is to grow — particular the ranks of cyber forces. The Air National Guard is poised to stand up 3,000 positions, James said Friday morning at a Air Force Association breakfast, largely attended by defense industry executives.
What about President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets about the F-35 and his request that Boeing send him a plan for a comparable Super Hornet? James said the F/A-18 “is a different aircraft...It does not fulfill the same requirements.”
Keep the A-10 Warthog, or at least delay its retirement. That’s James’s advice for her successor. She said the venerable plane is needed to fight ISIS. But the Air Force would need more money to do so.
Want to know how Ash Carter is framing his tenure as SecDef? Read his 10,000-word exit memo to President Obama, now posted to Medium. Defense News’ take: “Included are many of the ideas that have been staples of Carter speeches over the last year, including the need to modernize the Pentagon, ongoing operations against the “parent tumor” of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and developing the “Force of the Future” to keep the all-volunteer force strong in the coming years.” Read that, here.
Ash Carter’s parting gripe with Russia. “They haven’t done anything to fight ISIL. They’ve been fighting the moderate opposition along with the Syrian government. Everything they’ve done has been wrong headed and completely the obverse of what they said they were going to do… They’ve just doubled down on the civil war,” he said in an interview with Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal.
Writes Seib: “Mr. Carter said he has tried to adopt a policy of being 'strong and balanced' with Russia and being willing to work with the Kremlin when that is possible. And he cited the threats from North Korea and Iran as two areas where that has happened. He did encourage the new Congress and administration to continue funding programs designed to help European allies—particularly on the eastern edge of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—defend against potential Russian interference.
'I am confident that is a necessary thing to do, and we have to continue to invest in it... We’ll have to show the leadership in Europe that keeps NATO together, because one of the Russian objectives is to split off or try to peel off individual members of the alliance. It’s always been an objective, it remains an objective.'” More here.
The Pentagon released four former detainees from Guantanamo Bay on Thursday. Two of them were members of Osama bin Laden's "55th Arab Brigade," while another was a former bin Laden bodyguard and the last served at bin Laden’s Tora Bora complex, according to The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn, here.
According to Ash Carter's exit memo, Obama downsized the prison population at Guantanamo by nearly 75 percent, the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg wrote Thursday.
Next-gen missile subs move ahead: The U.S. Navy’s perhaps-$128 billion project to build 12 new ballistic-missile submarines has received the go-ahead to move into advanced of development, Bloomberg reports. (Find much more granular detail on the progress of the Columbia class of boomers at USNI News, here.)
The U.S. Navy is also sending its advanced E-2D early warning aircraft to Japan, Reuters reported Thursday. “The aircraft, designed to operate from aircraft carriers, will be based at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni in western Japan. It can act as a networked battle management platform, guiding other aircraft and ships to fire on incoming threats. The Navy did not give a specific number, but a squadron typically includes between 12 and 24 aircraft. The new aircrafts replace an older version, the E-2s.” More here.
Finally this week: The U.S. Navy’s “carrier gap” is ending. There were no American aircraft carriers deployed for the past week—something the Navy confirmed hasn't happened since World War II, the Washington Examiner’s Dave Brown reported Thursday. Now that’s over with the "'routine' deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific," Brown’s colleague, Jamie McIntyre reported. “The unusual gap in carrier presence is due in part to longer-than-expected maintenance for the USS George H.W. Bush, which was supposed to take eight months, but ended up taking 13 months. The Navy blamed the delay on increased wear and tear that resulted from an extended deployment. If it had left when it was supposed to, it would have relieved the Eisenhower in the Gulf. It's now expected to leave Norfolk for the Persian Gulf sometime this month, ending a two-month gap in the Middle East.”
For what it’s worth, “the Navy isn't completely without flattops at sea. The USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, is on deployment in the Middle East. The ship is smaller than an aircraft carrier and deploys with Marines, landing craft and helicopters.” More here. Have a great weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!