Escalation in Raqqa; Inside the Trump-Saudi meeting; Lockheed to move F-16 assembly line; What’s wrong with the military personnel system?; and just a bit more...

Escalation in Raqqa as President Trump’s counter-ISIS meeting gets underway today. The U.S. military has airdropped some 500 of its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces onto a peninsula west of the Islamic State group’s de-facto HQs in Raqqa, CBS News’ Cami McCormick reported this morning in a developing story. The Telegraph’s Josie Ensor, who has been reporting from Iraq and Syria for months, looked at the general area of the reported air-drop—near the Tabqa Syrian air base—to suggest the goal of this new operation seems to be to cut ISIS off from accessing Raqqa from Aleppo, crimping its “caliphate” from one side (the west) while the Mosul offensive severed supply routes for ISIS from the east in Iraq.

Update: By midday Wednesday, the coalition confirmed the operation, and stated its objectives.

Also newly reported in Raqqa governorate: the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. See it in use, reportedly out of Kobani, Syria, aimed for Raqqa on Tuesday, here. Recall that HIMARS were deployed to the vicinity of Mosul prior to the offensive launching in October. The system was first put into place for the Syrian battlefield last fall, after seven months of occasional targeting of ISIS positions inside Syria from Jordan.

We also have multiple reports of nearly three-dozen civilians who appear to have been killed from an airstrike overnight Monday in Syria. Reuters: “The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed the strike was carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Observatory activists had counted at least 33 bodies at the site near the village of al-Mansoura, west of Raqqa, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.”

AFP: “The monitor said Wednesday that the strike hit a school being used as a temporary shelter for displaced families, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of IS-held Raqa city.”

BBC: “The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said the fate of 50 families who were there was unknown. Both groups (RIBSL and SOHR) believe the raid was carried out by US-led coalition jets.” The Pentagon said this morning it is looking into the allegation, which could add to the more than 200 civilian casualties the U.S. military has claimed so far in its war on ISIS. More from al-Jazeera, here.

Also in Syria: Russia’s military force “has suffered losses since late January more than three times higher than the official toll,” Reuters reports this morning, calling it “a tally that shows the fight in Syria is tougher and more costly than the Kremlin has disclosed.”

The kicker: “Most of the dead were not regular Russian soldiers but Russian civilians working as private military contractors under the orders of Russian commanders. Moscow has not officially acknowledged the presence of the contractors in Syria.” Story here.

About that two-day counter-ISIS summit that begins today in Washington: “For those familiar with how these summits are usually conducted, the president and his team currently do not appear ready,” U.S. News reported Tuesday. “Only the secretaries of defense and state have begun work at their respective departments, while the other posts essential for making key decisions in war and foreign policy remain vacant. The White House has yet to come forward with any decisions out of the 30-day review the Pentagon conducted for changes to the war against the Islamic State group, and so far this week the executive branch has dedicated itself to publicly disputing accusations that members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. The summit did not even come up at Monday's White House press briefing.” More here.

From Defense One

Lockheed to Move F-16 Production to South Carolina // Marcus Weisgerber: The new, smaller line will better suit the dwindling orders for the venerable fighter jet, while freeing up space for F-35 production.

When the House of Trump Met the House of Saud // Derek Chollet: The Saudi and Trump families looked cozy in their first state visit, but beneath the gilded surface don’t expect much to change in U.S.-Saudi relations.

Space Is Booming. America's Next Heavy-Lift Rocket Should Reflect That // CSIS’s Todd Harrison, Andrew Hunter, Kaitlyn Johnson, Evan Linck and Thomas Roberts: As the U.S. government leaves the RD-180 rocket engine behind, it should position itself to support and reap the benefits of the growth in orbital markets.

Laptops and Tablets Are Now Banned from Use on 56 Routes to the US // Quartz’s David Yanofsky and Leslie Josephs: Passengers will be required to pack larger electronics into their checked luggage.

What's Wrong With the Pentagon's Civilian Personnel System? // GovExec’s Katherine McIntire Peters: Quite a lot, a new report points out.

Duterte Seems Alarmingly Resigned to Beijing's New Building in the South China Sea // Quartz’s Steve Mollman: 'What will I do? Declare a war against China? I can, but we'll all lose our military and policemen tomorrow,' President Duterte said this week.

Get “Foreign Military Sales Under the Trump Administration,” a new ebook from Defense One. During the eight years of the Obama administration, the defense industry’s requests to export weapons were approved at a record clip. Now companies are waiting to see how Donald Trump will do business. Download the ebook, here.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD871: King Æthelred of Wessex was defeated by Danish invaders at Merton. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

An omission Tuesday: We mentioned yesterday a chart/map showing all the U.S. military’s current deployments around the world, published this week by Business Insider. Thing is, we gave you the wrong link. Here’s the correct one. Sorry about that.

New North Korean test likely a failure. “A North Korean missile appeared to have exploded on Wednesday just after it was launched, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said after detecting the latest in a series of weapons tests,” Reuters reports this morning.

BBC: “This test came from the eastern coastal town of Wonsan and will be seen as a response to annual military drills under way between the US and South Korea, which the North sees as preparation for an attack on it.”

If you’re counting at home, “We're up to six [North Korean missile launches] so far this year. Thirty since start of 2016,” reported The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda.

In future toys: The U.S. Army wants to look at its M1 Abrams tank and M2 Bradley replacement options by 2022, referred to as “the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, or NGCV,” Popular Mechanics reported late last week. “The Army has tried twice to replace the M1 and M2. The first program, Future Combat Systems (FCS), ran from 1999 until cancellation in 2008. FCS spent a staggering $18.1 billion without fielding a single vehicle. A follow-on program, the Ground Combat Vehicle, scaled back plans from an entire family of armored vehicles to just replacing the M2 Bradley. That was cancelled in 2014.” More here.

Iran has reportedly stepped up its arms and equipment support for Houthis fighting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, “long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching deep into Saudi Arabia,” Reuters reports. “Sources say Iran is using ships to deliver supplies to Yemen either directly or via Somalia, bypassing coalition efforts to intercept shipments. Western sources say once the ships arrive in the region, the cargoes are transferred to small fishing boats, which are hard to spot because they are so common in these waters. Favored areas are believed to include fishing coves around the port of Mukalla, even though that would require smuggled men or equipment to make a long risky journey to the main Houthi-controlled districts.” Much more, here.

And the Houthis “are using a type of drone probably built by Iran to attack Saudi and UAE missile defense sites in Yemen,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday off of new findings from Conflict Armament Research. “While the Houthis could have outfitted the Qasef-1s with explosives or used them for surveillance, Emirati officials indicated to CAR that they were simply purposed as kamikaze vehicles in a bid to damage the radar stations utilized by U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries.” More here.

While we’re on Iran, when is a good time to talk about the “coming U.S.-Iran confrontation in Iraq,” after the Mosul offensive? Al-Monitor writes that now would be a great time, while the Iranian-aligned Popular Mobilization Units are still on good terms with the Mosul operation’s participants. That precautionary take, here.   

SecState Tillerson may attend NATO summit after all. After drawing fire for saying he would skip his first meeting with alliance foreign ministers to join Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump at Mar-A-Lago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he would work with NATO to reschedule the ministers’ meeting, which had been slated for April 4-5 in Brussels. Reuters, here.

Alleged Trump-Russia ties continue to plague the White House: AP, this morning: “President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics...The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.” Read on, here.

When a GOP president loses The Wall Street Journal: The paper’s staunchly right-wing editorial board posted an extraordinary piece last night. It begins: “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.” Read on, here.

Lastly today: “A House lawmaker on Tuesday urged leadership from all four military services to create one Defense Department policy for social media,” Stars and Stripes reported in the wake of the nude photo scandal and investigation that has rocked the Marine Corps, and now has spread to all the services. “The Facebook group had a reported 30,000 members before it was taken down. NCIS said it has identified 1,253 Marines United page members, including 725 active-duty and 150 Reserve Marines, as well as 15 sailors.” Adds Stripes: “The Coast Guard and FBI have also joined the investigation.” Read on, here.

Exclamation point: David Barno and Nora Bensahel pull no punches in their oped on the matter: “The War for the Soul of the Marine Corps: It’s Time to Choose.” Read, here.