Driving a wedge between Moscow and Iran?; ‘Mixed signals’ on Ukraine; America’s ‘nuclear sponge’; Big gaps in ISIS airstrike reporting; and just a bit more...

The Trump Administration wants to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, “exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State,” multiple administration, European and Arab officials told The Wall Street Journal. The move highlights one of the more potentially troubling aspects of the White House’s new direction with U.S. foreign policy, since the two countries are closely supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s nearly six-year-old war.

Among the risks: “persuading Mr. Putin to break with Tehran would be immensely difficult and—a number of Russian experts in Washington say—come at a heavy cost likely to reverberate across America’s alliances with its Western partners.”

And the immediate challenge: “The issue is whether Putin is prepared to abandon [Ayatollah] Khamenei,” said Michael Ledeen, former aide to Michael Flynn. “I think that might be possible if he is convinced we will ‘take care’ of Iran. I doubt he believes that today.”

The big worry: “The Trump administration’s show of force has raised concerns that the U.S. and Iran could stumble into a military conflict. But officials close to the Trump administration said they believed the White House could gain the respect of the Kremlin if it showed a commitment to enforcing its warnings to other governments.” Read the rest, here.

Russian reacted to Trump’s plans for Iran this morning: “Russia has friendly partner-like relations with Iran, we cooperate on a wide range of issues, value our trade ties, and hope to develop them further,” Kremlin spox Dmitry Peskov said.

Replied Tehran of the anti-Iran rhetoric from the White House: “Iran’s missile test was not a message to the new US government. There is no need to test Mr Trump as we have heard his views on different issues in recent days... We know him quite well.” That from Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi, here.

Also in the region this weekend, foreign ministry officials from Kuwait denied a fake news story that the government imposed a travel ban that was praised by Trump on his Facebook page. Reuters has the rundown, here.  

The Trump White House has a new way of describing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the follow-on conflict that’s killed more than 10,000 since April 2014: It is “Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia” and a conflict that requires his attention “to help them restore peace along the border.” Writes The Wall Street Journal: “The statement adds to uncertainty about Mr. Trump’s strategy on Russia.” For example, “his ambassador to the United Nations last week condemned Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, and Republican lawmakers have pressed Mr. Trump to maintain a tough line against Mr. Putin, including sanctions. The White House statement Saturday didn’t contain any condemnation of Russia.”

Said Russia’s Peskov: "There is no conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Donbas is exclusively an internal Ukrainian conflict."

However, “There is confusion and mixed signals, which is the last thing the world needs at a time of conflict and aggression,” said Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. More from the Journal, here.

From Defense One

As Fighting Resumes, Ukraine Extends a Wary Hand to Washington // Patrick Tucker: Past missteps and half-measures have undermined trust in the U.S, but commanders still say there are ways to help.

The Right — and Wrong — Lessons of Trump's Yemen Raid // Andrew Exum: Americans have to allow its elite men and women to be aggressive, to take risks, and to, on occasion, fall short.

Welcome to America's 'Nuclear Sponge' // Tom Z. Collina: If ICBMs are meant to draw enemy missiles toward American soil, it's time to rethink our nuclear strategy.

Mapped: America's Collective Defense Agreements // Ben Watson: As Donald Trump starts his presidency, the United States has agreements to come to the defense of more than 50 other nations.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day 10 years ago, President George W. Bush approved a plan for establishing AFRICOM, a new command (based in Germany) to coordination operations in Africa, covering all nations except Egypt, which falls under CENTCOM’s area of operations. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)

President Trump is not happy about the pushback on his immigration EO: A federal judge stayed the president’s immigration executive order on Friday, drawing angry Trump tweets and a quick appeal by government lawyers for an immediate overturn. A federal appeals court has requested government briefs by today. NYT, here.

Later in the weekend, Trump defended Russian president Vladimir Putin to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. "But he's a killer," O'Reilly said. Replied Trump: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" Clip, here. (At least one natsec observer noted a similarity to the Soviet tactic of “Whataboutism.”)

The Associated Press takes a wider view of the foreign-policy situation: “Ambiguity was a hallmark of Trump's campaign. He has said he believes the U.S. should not tip its hand on national security matters. But the fact that Trump is using vague language in private discussions has left both allies and officials in his administration uncertain whether he has policies in mind to back up his rhetoric.” One new example: a town hall held Tuesday for National Security Council staff. “One official in attendance said that when Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, and his deputy, KT McFarland, were asked to describe specifically what the president's "America First" mantra would mean for policy, they largely reiterated Trump's campaign assurances that he could put U.S. interests ahead of those of other countries.”

There was also this from right field: “According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump's friendlier tone on Russia.” Read more, here.

The New York Times goes even wider, describing the “first two dizzying first weeks” of an outsider president whose skeleton White House staff is operating at breakneck speed. It contains this extraordinary sentence: “But for the moment, Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council.” Read more, here.

Meanwhile, Vincent Viola, Trump's pick for Army secretary, announced that he won’t take the job because of Pentagon ethics rules that require him to divest various assets.

Trump himself has yet to make good on his promises to separate himself from his global business empire. Documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests by ProPublica show that Trump remains the owner and controller of businesses that he said he had turned over to other family members. NYTs, here.

ProPublica has a new chart of some of the president’s most pronounced conflicts of interest in the foreign-policy realm, here. (And here’s Defense One’s own natsec conflict-of-interest tracker, updated last week.)

The U.S. and Japanese militaries successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile with an Aegis and SM-3 late Friday off the Hawaiian island of Kauai, CNN reports. “The US Missile Defense Agency announced that the USS John Paul Jones detected, tracked and took out the target ballistic missile using its onboard Aegis Missile Defense System and a Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor.”

Background: “The test came while new US Defense Secretary James Mattis was on his first overseas trip to South Korea and Japan. Ballistic missile defense was at the top of the agenda after North Korea's prolific testing of short- and intermediate-range missiles last year.”

The Chinese reax: "Countries should not only consider their own security interests but also respect other countries' security concerns" when it comes to missile defense, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. "We should follow the principles of preserving global strategic stability and doing no harm to other countries' security."

A bit more about the system: “The Aegis system is designed to intercept ballistic missile around the middle of their flight, when the missile is at its highest point above the Earth. The system is based on the powerful AN/SPY-1 radar, which can track 100 missiles simultaneously.”

And on the combined power of the U.S. and Japanese navies: “The US Navy has 22 guided-missile cruisers and 62 guided-missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis system. Japan has six Aegis destroyers with plans for more. South Korea also operates Aegis-equipped destroyers.” More here.

President Trump’s unconventional phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia “has set off a political storm in that country,” The New York Times reports. And it’s a storm that “threatens to weaken support for a seven-decade alliance with the United States just as many Australians say they want closer ties with China.”

Compounding factors: “His administration’s confrontational stance on Iran has undermined liberal voices in that country; his restrictions on immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries have been widely criticized by allies; and his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal threatens to push countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, closer to China.” Story here.

Your Monday #LongRead: Destroying the myth of the “lone wolf” terrorist in America, and across the globe. “Remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years, including the attack on a community center in Garland, Tex., were initially labeled the work of ‘lone wolves,’ with no operational ties to the Islamic State, and only later was direct communication with the group discovered,” NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi reported this weekend in a long investigation that—if you’re into ways that terrorists communicate with each other to bridge technological divides—is really worth your time.

Also in the Times this weekend: “Over the last year, Special Operations troops have died in greater numbers than conventional troops — a first,” NYT’s Dave Philipps reported. “In 2010, more than 500 service members were killed in action. Since the beginning of 2016, 18 have died. But 12 of them were elite trainers and commandos serving with the Army Special Forces or the Navy SEALs. Special operations troops make up about 5 percent of the military.” More here.

Speaking of U.S. special operators, many are “quietly battling a frightening rise in parachute deaths,” Military Times reported this weekend. Their numbers: “11 special operators...died in such [parachute] training accidents between 2011 and 2016, a 60 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to 13 years worth of records obtained and analyzed by Military Times.

So what gives? “Internally, SOCOM officials have struggled to identify a definitive cause behind the unsettling trend, and they have declined to discuss any lessons learned from the force-wide investigation. A Military Times review of accident investigations involving Army, Navy and Air Force special operations personnel revealed troubling training shortfalls, lapsed jump qualifications, and a number of accidents and deaths at least partially attributed to overconfidence on the part of the jumpers or the trainers.” Read the rest, here.    

And Military Times published another investigation this weekendthis one suggesting “whether intentional or not, the Pentagon has been misleading the public and policymakers — for years,” one of the authors, Andrew deGrandpre wrote. The short version: “The American military has failed to publicly disclose potentially thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.”

The longer version: “In 2016 alone, U.S. combat aircraft conducted at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan that were not recorded as part of an open-source database maintained by the U.S. Air Force, information relied on by Congress, American allies, military analysts, academic researchers, the media and independent watchdog groups to assess each war's expense, manpower requirements and human toll. Those airstrikes were carried out by attack helicopters and armed drones operated by the U.S. Army, metrics quietly excluded from otherwise comprehensive monthly summaries, published online for years, detailing American military activity in all three theaters.”

The authors’ warning: “Most alarming is the prospect this data has been incomplete since the war on terrorism began in October 2001. If that is the case, it would fundamentally undermine confidence in much of what the Pentagon has disclosed about its prosecution of these wars, prompt critics to call into question whether the military sought to mislead the American public, and cast doubt on the competency with which other vital data collection is being performed and publicized.” More here.

Lastly today: Those noisy Brits. “Britain's ability to defend itself against a major military attack has been called into question after an investigation found Navy warships are so loud they can be heard 100 miles away by Russian submarines,” The Telegraph reported off a longer look into UK defenses by The Sunday Times this weekend. “Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former director of operational capability for the Ministry of Defence, said the £1 billion a piece Type 45 destroyers are ‘as noisy as hell’ and sound like ‘a box of spanners’ underwater.” The full Sunday Times report—including bad news for Ajax light armoured vehicles (they’re too big), Watchkeeper reconnaissance drones (they’re not ready), and P-8 spy planes (“cannot execute the full range of mission tasks”)—is worth your time, and you can find that here.