The risks of a Trump-Kim summit; US reveals more airstrikes in Libya; Lockheed pitches F-35 multiyear buy; VA chief adds armed guard to office; and just a bit more...

Yesterday’s surprise announcement that President Trump would meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in May “blindsided” America’s whittled-down diplomatic corps. Hours earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said he did not yet know whether “the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.” (Tillerson later said that the upcoming meeting constituted “talks” and not “negotiations,” declining to explain the difference.)

How it happened: In a Monday meeting in Pyongyang, Kim told South Korea’s national security adviser to invite Trump for talks, promising to halt nuclear and missile testing, “even during joint military drills in South Korea next month,” the Washington Post reported. Chung then flew to Washington to brief the U.S. president, who on Thursday announced through White House officials that he would accept.

The administration line, via VP Mike Pence on Friday: “The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime. Our resolve is undeterred and our policy remains the same: all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent, and verifiable steps to end their nuclear program.”

But it’s also a long-sought victory for the DPRK. “North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years. It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton,” notes Arms Control Wonk Jeffrey Lewis. “To be clear — we need to talk to North Korea. But Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.”

Parsing Pyongyang: North Korea officials, via WaPo: “The United States should know and understand our position and should further contribute to the peace and security-building in the Korean Peninsula with sincere position and serious attitude.” MIT’s Vipin Narang: “To me this sounds less like ‘we are gonna give up our nukes’ and more like ‘get the hell off our Peninsula.’”

The pessimist’s take. Says Stephen Walt: “I see two possibilities: 1) #trumps bluster + Kim’s own behavior left NK isolated and they felt they had to make some concessions, or 2) NK realized it was amateur hour at the WH & they are taking advantage.”

Three takes on the risks:

  • Former SecDef William J. Perry has his own piece up: “There is good reason to talk with North Korea, but only if we are talking about something that is worth doing and that could be reasonably verified — otherwise we are setting ourselves up for a major diplomatic failure.”
  • Victor Cha, former National Security Council director for Asia, in an oped for the New York Times: “Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war.”
  • Pusan National University prof Robert Kelly (aka the BBC kid dad): “We can always hope, but it is just as reasonable to fear that Trump, the reality TV star who somehow stumbled into the presidency for which he is woefully unfit, will wander from decades of joint US-South Korea policy, about which he naturally knows nothing, and make some kind of deal for a ‘win’ that no other US official would endorse.”

FWIW: Last September, retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, who served twice in South Korea and was the U.S. defense attaché to Russia in 2012-14, made this suggestion: “Put our president and North Korea’s Kim in a room together. Nothing else is working.” Read that, here.

From Defense One

Russia Will Challenge US Military Superiority in Europe by 2025: US General // Patrick Tucker: Russia is advancing in key military technology areas and shows no deceleration in efforts to destabilize the West, said the commander for U.S. forces in Europe.

What's There to Talk About With North Korea? // Uri Friedman: Kim Jong Un wants to talk to Trump and pause nuclear and missile tests—but the line between diplomacy and brinkmanship isn't that simple.

Let the Korean Breakthrough Run Its Course // Adam Mount: The new round of talks can only succeed if the Trump administration resists its own worst impulses.

What If Trump's North Korea Bluster Actually Worked? // Krishnadev Calamur: Kim Jong Un's offer of talks with the U.S. is accompanied by questions about his intentions.

African Union Bugged by China: Cyber Espionage as Evidence of Strategic Shifts // Mailyn Fidler: A number of African leaders have turned to Chinese investment as a viable alternative to Western development aid. The recent allegations of Chinese cyberespionage of the African Union's headquarters might prompt them to reconsider.

As Clearance Backlog Soars Past 710,000, Senators Want to Know Why // Erich Wagner: A nearly four-fold increase has people waiting more than a year for top-secret clearance.

The Global Business Brief, March 8 // Marcus Weisgerber: Undersecretary Griffin debuts with guns blazing; One-on-one with Lockheed CFO; Uncertainty for Marinette shipyard and more.

Welcome to this Friday 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 1951, U.S. Army Capt. Raymond Harvey, 31, from Pasadena, Calif., found himself and the men of the 17th Infantry Regiment's C. Company "pinned down by a barrage of automatic weapons fire from numerous well-entrenched emplacements" near Taemi-dong, Korea — or, what is today Pyongchang, South Korea. Harvey personally stormed four machine gun nests and emplacements, refusing evacuation until the mission was accomplished. For his actions, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on August 2, that same year. Harvey retired as a Lt. Col., and passed away at the age of 76 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Suicide bomber kills nine people in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Associated Press reports “the bomber was on foot and was trying to strike a gathering of Hazaras who were commemorating the 1995 death of their leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, killed at the hands of the Taliban.”
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it comes amid the diplomatic swings toward and away from peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.  
Elsewhere in the country Thursday, “the Taliban launched a deadly assault overnight on an army outpost in a remote region of Afghanistan's northern Takhar province, killing six soldiers and wounding five in a blistering hours-long attack,” the defense ministry said. Local police were sent to help, but 10 of them were killed by the Taliban.
ICYMI in Afghanistan: "The percentage of districts under insurgent control or influence has doubled since 2015," according to the more full set of data released thanks to the Afghan war watchdogs at SIGAR. Dive into that report, via the Federation of American Scientists, here. (h/t @warprof)

Ever wonder how the U.S. and Israel would respond if Iran fires a missile at Tel Aviv? Defense News fills in some of the picture with feedback from officers at this year’s Juniper Cobra air-defense exercise. This year, about 2,500 U.S. troops are in Israel for the drills. Marine Corps Times has a bit more about some of the troops involved, here.

Roughly $500 million in military equipment to Gulf allies. The State Department just approved $270.4 million for more than 300 missiles to the UAE, and nearly $200 million to renovate the air ops center in Qatar, Defense News reported Thursday. The ball now moves to Congress’s court. Details — and a small window into the tense diplomatic backdrop — here.  
Say what?The coast of Yemen has become a “live-fire laboratory” for testing lasers, Navy Times reported Thursday in a very short piece. Tiny bit more, here.

The Trump administration sold $5 billion more in arms during its first year than its predecessor, or a 30 percent increase, according to a new report from William Hartung at the Security Assistance Monitor.
The notable differences hinge largely on the types of weapons sold, Hartung writes. To wit: “The bulk of major arms offers during President Obama’s final year focused on sales of military aircraft. In contrast, the largest category of arms sales offers under the Trump Administration has been bombs and missiles, driven by major missile defense deals with Saudi Arabia, Poland, Romania, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates.”
Some more interesting pullouts:

  • “The Trump Administration’s top ten recipients of U.S. arms sales notifications in 2017 were in order: Saudi Arabia, Poland, Japan, Canada, Romania, Bahrain, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Greece, and Singapore. This is strikingly different than the top ten countries in 2016: Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Iraq, Australia, Norway, and Germany.”
  • “The Trump Administration proposed nearly $952 million in missile and torpedo deals for Taiwan in 2017 to help counter threats from China.” Read on, here.

“Buy now, save later!” says Lockheed Martin to the Pentagon about its F-35s. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Lockheed Martin Corp. has a plan to cut the daunting cost of its F-35 combat jet. But for that to happen, U.S. taxpayers would first have to pay more upfront to trim the price tag of the world’s most expensive military program.”
The pitch involves the Pentagon "buy[ing] hundreds of the jets in a single, multiyear contract in the early 2020s to harvest economies of scale from increased production."
For what it’s worth, “Lockheed and its partners have already cut the average price of the F-35A model used by the U.S. Air Force to around $95 million, from $122 million five years ago. They aim to reduce the price to roughly $80 million by the end of the decade. But Pentagon leaders want bigger cuts as annual production climbs toward 150 jets in the early 2020s, from 66 last year.”
This is all just a preview, the Journal writes. “The plan, due to be unveiled later this month, comes as senior Pentagon officials grow frustrated with efforts over the past three years to cut the cost of buying and flying as many as 2,400 of the radar-evading jets.” More here (paywall alert).

Transparency concerns for the U.S. military in Africa. The Defense Department’s U.S. Africa Command has carried out airstrikes in Libya eight times so far under President Trump. But it has only disclosed four of those, the New York Times reported Thursday. The discrepancy, the Times writes, raises “questions about whether the Pentagon has sought to obscure operations in the strife-torn North African nation.”
All you gotta do is ask, the U.S. military says. “Commanders decided to reveal those strikes only if a reporter specifically asked about them, a practice the Pentagon calls ‘responses to questions,’ [AFRICOM spox Maj. Karl J. Wiest] told the Times. “Of the previously undisclosed airstrikes, one was launched in September, two in October and one in January.”
For the record, eight airstrikes in Libya pales in comparison to the 130 in Yemen and more than 40 in Somalia during the same time, the Times writes. Nevertheless, “they are a kind of barometer of the highly volatile political and security environment in the country. They also serve as an indicator of the vast ungoverned spaces that still offer fertile safe havens where Islamic State and Qaeda fighters can regroup.” Continue reading, here.

Escalation in the SCS? A Chinese 3-star general says “China needs to build defensive structures on islands in the South China Sea to display its claim to sovereignty over virtually the entire crucial waterway,” the Associated Press reports this morning from Beijing.
The 3-star: Lt. Gen. He Lei, vice president of China's Academy of Military Sciences. The occasion was "a rare meeting with Chinese and foreign journalists on the sidelines of the annual session of China's ceremonial legislature, of which he is a member," AP writes. Beijing’s foreign ministry also got in a ding at the U.S. on Thursday, saying, “Some outside forces are not happy with the prevailing calm [in claimant tensions in the South China Sea], and try to stir up trouble and muddle the waters. Their frequent show of force with fully armed aircraft and naval vessels is the most destabilizing factor in the region." More here.

And finally this week, we turn back stateside, where a loyalty crisis finds the VA being run from a “fortified bunker.” According to the Washington Post, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin "has canceled the morning meetings once attended by several of President Trump’s political appointees… gathering instead with aides he trusts not to miscast his remarks. Access to Shulkin’s 10th-floor executive suite was recently revoked for several people he has accused of lobbying the White House to oust him. He and his public-affairs chief have not spoken in weeks."
What’s more, “In a sign of how deeply Shulkin’s trust in his senior staff has eroded, an armed guard now stands outside his office.”
What follows is a portrait of a man "fighting to regain his standing amid a mutiny. Although those who want him gone say their focus is fulfilling the president's priorities, it has become clear that one side — whether it's Shulkin, who is the only Obama administration holdover in Trump's Cabinet, or his estranged management team — is unlikely to survive the standoff.”
On the other side, “Shulkin’s critics deny they are plotting a coup. Rather, they say they are airing differences over a controversial policy priority for the president — that veterans have greater ability to choose private doctors at VA's expense. Though popular in the White House, the effort is viewed skeptically by the American Legion and other veterans groups that fear it will lead to VA's downsizing.” Read on, here.

Have a great weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!