Russia in the spotlight; US government ‘in unbelievable turmoil’; What Netanyahu, Trump should discuss; China vs. sub drones; and just a bit more...

Russia in the spotlight. From Flynn fallout, to a spy ship off the coast of Delaware, to “unsafe” encounters in the Black Sea—Russia is getting more than its fair share of attention this week. We’ll start by working backward from those three stories. “Russian fighter and surveillance aircraft buzzed the USS Porter, a guided-missile destroyer, in international waters [of the Black Sea] three times on Feb. 10,” Stars and Stripes reported Tuesday from a statement by EUCOM spokesman Lt. Col. David Faggard, who said the jets flew with their transponders off and failed to respond to radio contact.

What happened, according to an unnamed defense official: “In the first incident, a Russian Ilyushin Il-38 surveillance aircraft flew near the Porter at an ‘unusually low altitude,’ he said. Later, two Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer fighters flew near the ship at ‘a low altitude and a high speed.’ A third Su-24 performed a similar ‘unsafe and unprofessional’ maneuver later in the day, Faggard said. The last Su-24 flew closest to the ship, when the plane came within 200 yards of the Porter at an altitude of about 300 feet and a speed of 500 knots.”

In case you’re wondering what the USS Porter is doing in the Black Sea, Stripes writes, it was sent to “participate in Exercise Sea Shield 2017, an annual Romanian-led training operation designed to improve coordination and proficiency of NATO naval units.” More on the exercise, here.

Back stateside, “a Russian spy ship was spotted patrolling off the East Coast of the United States on Tuesday morning, the first such instance during the Trump administration—and the same day it was learned the Kremlin had secretly deployed controversial cruise missiles inside Russia [more on that below] and flew within 200 yards of a U.S. Navy destroyer,” Fox News reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

"The ship, the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov...was in international waters, 70 miles off the coast of Delaware and heading north at 10 knots, according to one official." Fox reported that it "last sailed near the U.S. in April 2015” and “was also seen in Havana in January 2015."

Update: Fox's Lucas Tomlinson reports the ship has traveled to "30 miles south of Groton, [Conn.]," which is home to Naval Submarine Base New London. 

A little more about it: "Capable of intercepting communications or signals, known as SIGINT, the ship can also measure U.S. Navy sonar capabilities, a separate official said. The Russian spy ship is also armed with surface-to-air missiles."

The U.S. military's reax: “It’s not a huge concern, but we are keeping our eyes on it,” one official said.

About those cruise missiles: “the Russians now have two battalions of [a] prohibited cruise missile. One is still located at Russia’s missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country, according to a senior official who did not provide further details,” The New York Times reported Tuesday.

“Russia began test-firing this system under the Bush admin, so the question is: does Trump want to make this a crisis?” asked Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Says Jeffrey Lewis, @ArmsControlWonk: “This is a treaty compliance nightmare” because of the Russian’s proficiency in cruise missile production, cranking out models that can travel anywhere from 300 to 2,500 km.

His solution: “We should revisit the original 1979 NATO dual-track response—new deployments AND arms control efforts.”

Why? Russian President Vladimir “Putin wants to divide NATO, and Russian disinformation suggests he thinks nuclear issues are divisive...The point of a new dual-track decision is to make sure that Moscow gets the blame it deserves for circumventing and violating INF. Our goal is to make Russia's nuclear policies strengthen NATO unity and isolate Moscow. It's tricky, but we've done it before.” His entire argument is worth your time, and you can find that beginning here.

Now we turn to the White House, where the Times reported late Tuesday Trump campaign aides and associates communicated with Russian intelligence operatives in the year before the election. Under the microscope is “Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine” and “at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and [former National Security Adviser Michael] Flynn.”

The context: “The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials.”

For the record, the Times writes, “All of the men have strongly denied that they had any improper contacts with Russian officials.” Read the full story, here.

Quote of the week: “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.” That comes from SOCOM commander Gen. Tony Thomas, speaking at the Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict conference in Washington Tuesday. The New York Times writes, “Asked about his comments later, General Thomas said in a brief interview, ‘As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.’” That at the bottom of a wider story on what President Trump knew when, here.

Speaking of who knew what when, NYT has a good timeline that compares public and private events.

The quotable Sen. John McCain offered up a line on the situation in Washington on Tuesday, too, saying Flynn's resignation "is a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus." Read his statement, here.

Question: “Nearly 75 Percent Of Political DoD Jobs Are Empty, But Does It Matter?” asks Defense News’ Aaron Mehta. “While some worry that the open positions could create roadblocks to important planning and development initiatives such as the next budget or the Nuclear Posture Review ordered by Trump in his first week in office, others point out that the DoD is uniquely suited to deal with a lack of political appointees thanks to a strong civilian workforce and uniformed leadership.” More here.


From Defense One

There's No One At the Helm of White House Foreign Policy // Eliot A. Cohen: Flynn's departure won't solve the Trump administration's central dysfunction.

When Netanyahu and Trump Meet, Russia Should Top the Agenda // Haim Malka: Moscow's intervention in Syria is one of the most significant strategic shifts facing Israel in nearly two decades.

What Does Trump Want from Netanyahu? // Daniel Shapiro: It's clear enough what the Israeli prime minister expects. But the Americans are in a position to make their own demands.

The US and Iran Are Not Yet on a Course to War // Christopher J. Bolan of the Army War College: Despite bellicose words, both sides have also demonstrated elements of restraint.

Five Questions Raised by Michael Flynn's Abrupt Departure // David A. Graham: Who in the White House knew that the national security adviser had misled Mike Pence, and when? Who will replace him? And what will be the next bombshell?  

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Remember that the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor on this day in 1898, killing 260 crewmembers. “The episode escalated tensions between the United States and Spain and contributed to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War two months later,” the NYTs writes of that day. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


SecDef Mattis in Europe. The “turmoil in Washington” and a “sense of disarray has caused concern in Brussels about pinning down White House policy on key issues like Russia,” The Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes reports from NATO HQs this morning where Mattis arrived ahead of a defense ministerial later today. “In the run-up to Wednesday’s gathering of NATO defense ministers, diplomats and officials said they expect Mr. Mattis to repair the damage caused by the U.S. election campaign and President Donald Trump’s earlier comments that NATO is obsolete. Western diplomats are anxious to put to rest any doubts that America will honor its security commitment to Europe.”

What’s on deck for NATO? “Defense ministers are expected to approve a new hub at the alliance command in Naples to help improve intelligence analysts about threats in North Africa and the Middle East. While allies are enthusiastic about expanding NATO’s training efforts, there is no consensus in the alliance that they should take on a combat role in fighting extremism in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere.” More here.

ICYMI: “America’s allies in Europe and Canada raised their defense spending in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by $10 billion last year, a 3.8% increase that is bigger than allied officials initially expected,” WSJ’s Julian Barnes reported Tuesday. More on that one, here.

Over to China, which is considering making it illegal for subs and drones to travel surreptitiously nearby. "Foreign submersibles, passing through territorial waters of the People's Republic of China, should travel on the surface, raise their national flag, and report to Chinese maritime management administrations," wrote the official China News Service late on Tuesday, according to US News. The state-run media outlet gave no details nor did it mention the South China Sea, where a Chinese warship seized (and later released) a U.S. submarine drone in December. More, here.

China has reached “near-parity” with U.S. military technology, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which on Tuesday released the 17th annual edition of its authoritative The Military Balance book. "China's military progress highlights that Western dominance in the field of advanced weapons systems can no longer be taken for granted," IISS director John Chipman said at a presentation in London, as reported by AFP. "An emerging threat for deployed Western forces is that with China looking to sell more abroad, they may confront more advanced military systems, in more places, and operated by a broader range of adversaries." Read, here.

U.S. warships are in the area, as usual; the missile-tracking ship USNS Howard O. Lorenzen visited the South Korean port of Busan, three days after a North Korean test launch; the attack submarine Louisville put in at Subic Bay, Phillippines; and the littoral combat ship Coronado passed through the South China Sea.

#LongReads: three congressionally mandated studies about the Navy’s future have been delivered in recent months by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA), MITRE Corporation and the Navy. USNI News dug into them, here.

The U.S. Air Force is ramping back up its refueling support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, Military.com’s Oriana Pawlyk reported Tuesday. “Since April 2015, the Air Force has logged 1,778 tanker sorties for the operation, Air Forces Central Command spokeswoman Capt. Kathleen Atanasoff told Military.com on Tuesday. That includes 1,069 over the past year, an increase of 360, or 50 percent, from the 709 in the previous period...The service's tankers such as KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders participated in 7,564 refueling "events" with coalition aircraft, with ‘about 54 million pounds of fuel off-loaded in support of Saudi operations in Yemen,’” according to Air Forces Central Command spokeswoman Capt. Kathleen Atanasoff. More here.

Elsewhere in Yemen, a dozen Saudi soldiers have been killed in fighting against the Houthis along the southern border in February, AFP reported Tuesday, citing dispatches from the Saudi Press Agency. “A Western diplomat told AFP last week that more than 100 members of the Saudi armed forces had likely been killed since the coalition intervened nearly two years ago.” A bit more, here.

Lastly today: Marines will bring quadcopters along to southern Afghanistan, Military.com reported Tuesday. “Marines with Task Force Southwest spent the day Feb. 8 training with Instant Eye, a tactical low-cost hand-launched drone mounted with multiple cameras to provide an accurate picture of the battlespace...A spokeswoman for II MEF, Maj. Kendra Motz, confirmed that the task force would deploy to Helmand with the small UAVs, but would not say how many of the systems the unit would take or how many of them would be Instant Eye drones.”

What’s new here: “Infantry Marines have used quadcopters including Instant Eye systems in exercises including last fall’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment. However, this may be the first reported instance of the Marines using the small systems downrange.” More here, or watch some Marines—including Commandant Gen. Robert Neller—with the Instant Eye drone, purportedly back in August, here.

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