Gray Eagle drones to Korea; DPRK hacking on the rise; US strikes in Somalia; Border Patrol checkpoints, deep inside the US; and just a bit more...

The U.S. is sending a dozen MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones to the Korean peninsula for exercises in March and April, RoK’s Chosun news reported Tuesday.

A few things to know about the Gray Eagle: “With a 17 m wingspan, it is 8 m long and can fly at a maximum speed of 280 km/h for up to 30 hours. It is capable of non-stop surveillance missions and intelligence gathering in an area of a 400 km radius from an altitude of 7.6 km, which means it can target most parts of North Korea. It could hit a vehicle carrying North Korean leaders, a missile launch site, or mobile missile launchers with four Hellfire anti-tank missiles or four Viper Strike small guided precision bombs. Each GPS-guided Viper Strike bomb weighs 20 kg and is accurate to within 1 meter so it can destroy even a fast-moving vehicle.”

FWIW: China just last year “objected to the deployment plan… worried because the Gray Eagle could carry out surveillance of China's Shandong Peninsula, which is about 400 km from Gunsan,” where the MQ-1Cs are headed. Read on, here.

Meanwhile, North Korean offensive cyber activity is on the rise: everything from spying on journalists to cryptocurrency heists, cybersecurity researchers say. Why? Maybe to replenish a national treasury depleted by nuclear tests. D1’s Patrick Tucker has the story, here.

From the region: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says ballistic missile defense is simply not cost effective, the Nikkei Asian Review reported Thursday.

One system under scrutiny: “Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the Aegis missile defense system” is seen by people close to Abe as “especially costly.”

Dollars: “According to a defense ministry estimate, the most advanced version of radar system alone would cost about 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion). The central command system costs another $930 million. Buying two sets, needed cover the entire country, would come to about $4.6 billion. Missiles cost about $37 million apiece, and normally two are fired when trying to shoot down a ballistic missile.”

And sense: All this means that the tab runs to about $74 million just “to shoot down one missile.” The complicating factor: “North Korea is believed to have several hundred such missiles.” Read on for what options Japan is considering in place of Aegis Ashore — including F-35s and cruise missiles — here.

From Defense One

North Korea Is Upping Its Offensive Cyber Operations // Patrick Tucker: As Pyongyang runs out of money for missile tests, expect more hacking.

TSA Wants Your Face To Be Your Passport — But There's One Big Problem With That // Rosie Spinks: With current technology, ethnic minorities and non-American travelers could find biometric identification to be much slower and prone to error.

Trump's Aimless War in Afghanistan Expands, Again // Danny Sjursen: Why is the U.S. bombing Chinese separatists, and what does it say about the flailing war effort in Afghanistan?

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. On this day in 1932, Nazi Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels announced the presidential candidacy of 42-year-old Adolf Hitler at a rally in Berlin.

More U.S. strikes on al-Shabab in Somalia. Three militants were believed to have been killed near the southern town of Jilib on Monday, U.S. Africa Command announced Wednesday. This would make the third strike of 2018 in Somalia, Voice of America’s Harun Maruf wrote on Twitter. “[P]revious strikes took place on January 2 and 18, killing six fighters,” he said.

France lost two service members to an IED in Mali in late January, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday.
What happened: “The French army said the attack took place near Mali's borders with Niger and Burkina Faso, a bastion of jihadist activity where three French soldiers were injured in an attack last month.”
The bigger picture: “Their deaths brought to 12 the number of French soldiers killed since the start of Operation Barkhane, which was launched more than three years ago to quell jihadist activity in the former French colony of Mali and in neighbouring countries… Around 4,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane, alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.” A bit more, here.

Back stateside, the U.S. Border Patrol is “aggressively using a little-known authority to set up checkpoints and search private property to crack down on illegal immigration,” The New York Times reported Wednesday from America’s southern border — extending a related report 11 days ago from America’s northern border by the Toronto Star.
What’s new here: "a little-known federal law" is being used to allow Border Patrol officers to work "without permission on private property and setting up checkpoints up to 100 miles away from the border."
One small problem: A man near Encinal, Texas, told the Times “he found a [CPB] surveillance camera hidden in a tree near his house.” The man “removed the camera and kept it as evidence of federal officers trespassing on his property… State officials have threatened to arrest him on theft charges. [The man] sued both agencies.”
The eventual bigger problem: “Inevitably, one of these cases is going to get to the Supreme Court, which will have to revisit the seemingly limitless government authority the department claims it has,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
The Toronto Star’s report begins in Syracuse, N.Y., where Americans are being stopped by CPB officers and asked if they are a citizen of the U.S. The Star’s bottom line: “The bus and train checks are not new. But they appear to be happening more often near the Canadian border than they did in the five years prior to Trump’s tenure. And they have attracted renewed scrutiny around the country as Trump touts his crackdown on illegal immigration and gives the Border Patrol more money and leeway.” Read on, here.

Today’s #LongRead: Take a much closer look at Syria's “war economy,” via this deepdive by Middle East analyst Aron Lund, writing at The Century Foundation.
What you will learn, in short: How “the world’s biggest cement company tried to survive in Syria by making deals with the regime, rebels, Kurds, and the Islamic State, all at once—and what it tells us about Syria's future.”

From the Dept. of Questionable Ideas: “White House Considers Citing Russian Deaths in Syria as Sign of U.S. Resolve,” reads Bloomberg’s headline after WH Spox Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday that President Trump “has done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia. Just last week, there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days, and another way that this president was tough on Russia.”
Caveat: “Both the Kremlin and the Pentagon have downplayed the incident. Russia’s military said it had nothing to do with the attack and the U.S. accepted the claim. Regardless, it was the deadliest clash between citizens of the two countries since the Cold War.”
Adds Bloomberg: “It’s unclear when the White House learned of the attack or the composition of the Russian forces. And if Trump wanted to show his resolve to confront Russia, there are easier ways: he could enact sanctions Congress has already approved in retaliation for the election meddling or publicly criticize the Russian campaign.” More here.
BTW: Investigative journalists in Russia — there are reportedly still a few — “have dug up employment records showing that the ‘Wagner’ [private military contractor] employs 3,602 people.” Details, here.  

Did Russia just fly a prototype aircraft in Syria? Perhaps, says Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, after seeing this video clip that’s making the rounds on social media. Read more about the aircraft in question — Moscow’s Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter — via this take from The National Interest back in July.

Can your AI find a truck in a photo? A new Defense Department contest offers $100,000 for algorithms that can identify items such buildings and trucks in satellite images. Run by DIUx and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the contest grew out of a) SecDef Mattis’ loud admiration for Silicon Valley’s AI prowess and b) the many, many hours that NGA analysts spent poring over satellite imagery after last year’s floods, hunting for damaged buildings and impassable roads. Wired reports, here.

And finally today: a burgeoning threat to infosecurity research — lawsuits. When companies make products with security vulnerabilities, particularly products sold for the very purpose of providing security, the problems are sometimes brought to light by third-party researchers and journalists. And sometimes the companies sue them. This “threatens infosec research just when we need it most,” writes ZDNet, which wraps up some of the latest examples here.