Correction: An earlier version of today's D Brief misstated which conflict Defense Secretary James Mattis was talking about when he said, “We’re winning.” He was talking about the fight against ISIS.
Donald Trump’s second trip to the Pentagon as president featured a two-hour, "broad overview" of the U.S. military’s ongoing efforts in “Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and other countries,” the Associated Press reported Thursday. But what does the public need to know about those meetings? Very little, it would seem. “No decisions were made in the meeting and there was no talk of timelines,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said afterward.
AP: “Trump avoided providing any specifics on the Pentagon meeting, which he described as ‘very good.’ He said ‘you'll be hearing’ about future action in Afghanistan.” (Recall that the Trump administration promised a new plan for Afghanistan by mid-July.)
Later in the day, SecDef James Mattis, SecState Rex Tillerson and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke with House lawmakers for more than 90 minutes, AP reports.
The takeaways out of that? "We're winning. They're losing. How's that?" Mattis told reporters after the closed-door meeting.
And back at the White House, Trump’s team is reportedly looking into ways to stall or thwart the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. The president is said to have asked about the possibility of pardoning staff, family, and even himself. Washington Post, here.
From Defense One
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Ukraine Is Losing Fewer Weapons to Theft, but High-Level Corruption Persists // Timothy Evans: A member of the Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee says the international community must leverage its security aid to force reforms.
State Dept Will Still Run Int'l Cyber Policy, Even If It Closes Cyber Office // Joseph Marks: A White House official also outlined how federal agency leaders will be held accountable for network breaches.
The Global Business Brief: July 20 // Marcus Weisgerber: F-35 sales, Saudi deals; Interview with NDIA's Hawk Carlisle; Small satellites; and a lot more.
Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. OTD1959: NS Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, is launched. Have something you want to share? Email us at email@example.com. (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)
US, Chinese naval chiefs talk. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson spoke for an hour with his Chinese counterpart, Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong, over VTC on Thursday — the first time the two have talked since Shen took command in January, U.S. Naval Institute News reported.
The two talked about “future bilateral naval engagements like port visits and exercises,” but not “the new round of U.S. freedom of navigation operations or China’s continued militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.”
To review: “Since the start of the Trump administration, the Navy has conducted two FON ops past Chinese holdings in the South China Sea to continued protests from Beijing,” USNI reports. “While the Pentagon is not officially acknowledging the FON ops publically, outside an annual State Department report, USNI News understands the National Security Council has been presented with an ongoing schedule of opportunities for U.S. ships to test excessive maritime claims.”
Continued reading: “Will America Challenge China's Sweeping Sovereignty Claims?” That’s the question asked by Joseph Bosco, who retired in 2010 after serving as China country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in The National Interest this week. Bosco takes issue with a recent article in Lawfare that sought to distinguish freedom of navigation operations (aka “FONOPs”) from “the routine practice of freedom of navigation.”
Bosco’s BLUF: “Under the authors’ approach, FONOPs are not considered to be a substitute for normal freedom of navigation activities; yet, freedom of navigation activities are not supposed to look too much like FONOPs. Such criticism puts the Navy in a no-win situation. The FONOPS tail should not wag the freedom of navigation dog. The USS Dewey operation (in May) should be the model throughout the South China Sea.” That, here.
“The City Is the Battlefield of the Future,” U.S. Army Maj. John Spencer of West Point’s Modern War Institute writes in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. Echoing a sentiment shared by Army officers for years now, Spencer warns, “Future American conflicts will not be waged in the caves or craggy mountaintops of Afghanistan, much less the open deserts of Iraq or the jungles of Vietnam. They will be fought in cities—dense, often overpopulated and full of obstacles: labyrinthine apartment blocks, concealed tunnels, panicking civilians. The enemy will be highly networked and integrated into his surroundings. America’s next war will be the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu on steroids.”
So, what’s to be done? Spencer calls for a “long-term investment” of dollars and brains to build “an authentic, full-scale training site to prepare American troops. I imagine a school in an actual city, analogous to the mountain, desert and jungle operations centers the U.S. currently maintains. Major cities such as Detroit and the outer boroughs of New York have large abandoned areas that could be safely redeveloped as urban training sites.” Read on, (paywall alert) here.
Sen. John McCain’s take on the Trump administration’s halt to the CIA’s Syrian rebel training program: It is “irresponsible, short-sighted & plays into Russia, Assad's hands.”
Rebels’ reax: “We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army — according to the Washington Post. Salameh also said withdrawing U.S. covert support will undoubtedly aid the Iranians and the Assad regime.
Said a different commander from the Damascus region: “The picture is not clear for us yet, but I think it is a very bad move.” The previous help — arms and advisors — "made a difference, but not a massive one. It’s not like the U.S. is sending us planes or ground troops.”
Another commander from Idlib found it hard to believe. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that,” he said. Story, here.
Iraq will buy “several hundred” Russian-made T-90 tanks from manufacturer Uralvagonzavod. Altogether, the deal will cost more than a billion dollars, according to Russian news service Izvestia.
There are many, many takes out there on the prowess of the T-90 — like this one comparing it to U.S.-made TOW missiles; and this one comparing it to America’s M1 Abrams tanks. Moscow’s state-run RT news has a bit more on the deal, here.
The Islamic State group leadership has been funneling “tens of thousands of dollars to militants in the Philippines over the last year, most likely aiding their spectacular seizure of the southern Philippine city of Marawi,” The New York Times reported Thursday off a new report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, based in Jakarta, Indonesia. “The Islamic State’s ability to financially support its Philippine offshoots appears limited mainly to periodic Western Union transfers of tens of thousands of dollars, the report found, suggesting that direct support from Syria was a relatively minor factor in the Maute Group’s ability to seize Marawi. The report argues that local recruiting and fund-raising among pious Muslims who resented the Philippines’ central government have probably played a more significant role in the insurgents’ successes.” Read the full report from IPAC, here.
Election-hack attribution tug-o-war continues at 1600 Penn. Two weeks after Trump reiterated his claim that “nobody really knows” what foreign powers may have meddled in the 2016 U.S. general election, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, Tom Bossert, unequivocally said Russia was to blame, Politico reported Thursday.
Microsoft goes on the offensive against Russian hackers, The Daily Beast reports. The software giant’s lawyers have “quietly sued the hacker group known as Fancy Bear in a federal court outside Washington DC, accusing it of computer intrusion, cybersquatting, and infringing on Microsoft’s trademarks.”
Adds TDB: “The action, though, is not about dragging the hackers into court. The lawsuit is a tool for Microsoft to target what it calls ‘the most vulnerable point’ in Fancy Bear’s espionage operations: the command-and-control servers the hackers use to covertly direct malware on victim computers.” More here.
The “Left Coast” fears Putin. Hollywood is ditching its portrayals of Russian President Vladimir Putin out of concerns the studios will become victims of hacking, The Hollywood Reporter wrote Wednesday. The films called out: “Red Sparrow,” due next March, which “tells the story of a Russian spy (Jennifer Lawrence) wooed by the CIA to be a double agent.” And “Kursk,” which relays “the true story of a Russian submarine that sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in 2000, even though [Putin] appears in the source material.”
Said one manager in Hollywood: "Everything will be Russia for the next four years." Story, here.
Artificial intelligence could alter the nature of warfare as much as nuclear weapons, Wired reported Wednesday. What makes them suggest as much? A “a 132-page new report on the effect of artificial intelligence on national security” from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs — and “at the request of IARPA, the research agency of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”
BLUF: “The report recommends that the US start considering what uses of AI in war should be restricted using international treaties.” More from Wired, here. Or read the full Belfer Center report for yourself, here.
Lastly this week: You may not believe your eyes after seeing this video. “People actually thought the F-35A display at Paris last month was impressive,” FlightGlobal’s Stephen Trimble wrote on Twitter after seeing a Russian Su-35 do a couple amazing tricks at the recent airshow in Moscow. About those Su-35 tricks: “This isn't impressive. It's unbelievable,” Trimble said. Catch the video here. And have a safe weekend, gang. We’ll catch you again on Monday!