Saudi reactor nears completion; Taliban besiege Afghan troops; Japan detonates space bomb; US rejects Turkey’s F-35 idea; And a bit more.

Saudi Arabia is about a year away from having its first nuclear reactor, Bloomberg reported this week off satellite imagery. And the big question now is how soon will Riyadh allow international inspectors inside?  

Location: the King Abdulaziz city for science and technology, just outside of Riyadh. The reactor there was reportedly designed by Argentinian state-owned company, Invap SE, with much of the work performed by Saudi engineers, according to The Guardian.

Apparent known-knowns: “The site was identified by Robert Kelley, a former director for nuclear inspections at the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said it was [a] very small 30-kilowatt research reactor, not far from completion,” the Guardian’s Julian Borger writes. “The satellite photos show that a 10-metre high steel tubular vessel, which will contain the nuclear fuel, has been erected, and construction work is under way on the surrounding concrete building.”

Fine print standing in the Saudis’ way: "Saudi Arabia is currently signed up to the IAEA’s so-called Small Quantities Protocol, a set of rules that will become obsolete once it needs atomic fuel. It hasn’t adopted the rules and procedures that would allow nuclear inspectors to access potential sites of interest," Bloomberg writes. "Without submitting to tighter IAEA monitoring, the kingdom would struggle to fuel its reactor."

ICYMI: Some U.S. senators are not so pleased with this quiet nuclear progress in Saudi Arabia, judging from a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday — as well as what transpired before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. Read a bit more about that senate exchange via the Washington Post, here; and The Guardian covers the highlights of the House hearing in his piece on the new reactor, here.  

Speaking of the Saudis and U.S. House lawmakers, The House on Thursday voted 247 to 175 "to end U.S. participation in Yemen’s civil war," the Washington Post reported, "sending the measure to President Trump for his expected veto."

In a vote that "fell largely along party lines," WaPo writes, “Thursday’s action in the House marked the first time both chambers have voted to invoke the same war-powers resolution to end U.S. military engagement in a foreign conflict — and is the latest instance of Congress’s challenging Trump’s decisions as commander in chief.”

What next? Business-as-usual, most likely. That’s because “while the Yemen measure’s passage in the Senate and the House is historic, support for it is not strong enough to overcome a presidential veto, making it likely that the effort will ultimately be only a gesture of disapproval.” More here.

For the record: “The United States has struck at least $68.2bn worth of deals for firearms, bombs, weapons systems, and military training with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the start of their war in Yemen,” which is “billions more than previously reported,” the Middle East Eye wrote Thursday off a new report from arms trade watchdog Security Assistance Monitor and William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy.

Still, the U.S. arms exports are shifting away from the Middle East, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports, here.

Other pullouts from that CIP report:

  • “U.S. arms sales offers totaled $78.8 billion in 2018,” a $3.4 billion decline from Trump’s first year in office.  
  • “President Trump continued to exaggerate the number of jobs generated by U.S. arms sales, both to Saudi Arabia and globally. By the most generous estimate, total U.S. arms sales-related jobs equal two-tenths of one percent of the U.S. labor force.”
  • “The top five recipients of U.S. arms offers in 2018 were Italy ($11.4 billion), the United Kingdom ($7.3 billion), Japan ($7.2 billion) Belgium ($6.6 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($4.5 billion).”
  • “The top five arms exporters, based on deals of $500 million or more, were Lockheed Martin, which was involved in deals worth $25 billion; Boeing, $7.1 billion in deals; Raytheon, $5.5 billion in deals; Northrop Grumman, had one deal worth $2.5 billion; and BAE systems, which had a $1.3 billion deal.” Find the full report (PDF), here.

From Defense One

Pentagon’s Focus On China and Russia Expected to Alter US Arms Sales // Marcus Weisgerber: A new report shows a decline in Middle Eastern nations’ share of overall exports.

Expect Shanahan's Niger-Ambush Review in 'Weeks': Official // Katie Bo Williams: A 4-star general will conduct a new review of the 2017 ambush that killed four U.S. troops in Niger.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: New Boeing tanker woe; Missile mystery; Selling the Space Force; and more…

The National Defense Strategy Is No Strategy // Gregory D. Foster: It’s closer to a call for a new Cold War.

One in Four TSA Screeners Quits Within Six Months // Eric Katz, Government Executive: TSA administrator says low pay is to blame and promises new compensation system soon.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1943, potatoes helped save the crew of the USS O’Bannon from a Japanese submarine encounter in the Southwest Pacific.

Some 2,000 Taliban fighters have besieged about 600 Afghan troops inside an army base in western Badghis province, AP reports this morning from Kabul. The siege is now in its second day, and at least 32 Afghan soldiers and police have died while the rest are nearly out of ammunition, as well as food and water.
Where is the U.S. Afghan envoy is amid this ongoing Taliban violence? Zalmay Khalilzad is in neighboring Pakistan today, where officials reportedly continue to support “the ongoing Afghan peace process,” according to the foreign ministry, which did not elaborate. Read on, here.

Turkey offered the U.S. military a “working group” to smooth out tensions over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system — since the U.S. is halting F-35 work in Turkey on account of that S-400 deal. Al-Monitor reported Thursday the Pentagon said thanks but no thanks to that working group. Which means the drama continues. Read on, here.

Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s men are advancing fast on Tripoli “to challenge the internationally recognised government,” Reuters reports today after the U.N. chief met with Haftar in Benghazi.
“We are coming Tripoli, we are coming,” the general said in an audio message Thursday.
What’s really going on: “Since Gadhafi’s ouster, Libya has been split between rival governments in the east and west and an array of militias fighting over power and oil fields,” AP reports today from Benghazi.
Who’s around Tripoli? Multiple militias, and many of them vowed to fight Haftar’s men for Tripoli, AP adds. Many of those men moved “machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces,” Reuters writes.
By the way: Russia says it’s not backing Haftar's offensive, Reuters reported separately this morning.
Next up for Hiftar’s men: “the town of al-Aziziya, considered the gates of Tripoli.” Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is headed to Tobruk, Libya — “another eastern city, to meet lawmakers of the House of Representatives, which is also allied to Haftar.”

Did India really shoot down a Pakistani F-16 during that kerfuffle in March? It doesn’t appear that way, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy on Thursday.

More than 200 boats from China’s maritime militia appear to be trying to intimidate Philippines forces away from the island of Pag-asa, aka Thitu. “Since January, at least 275 Chinese boats functioning as part of a maritime militia have gathered for varying lengths of time near Thitu Island, according to the Philippines’ military,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Their tactics raise concerns about their ‘role in support of coercive objectives,’ the country’s foreign ministry said Thursday.”
Making matters more complicated, “China’s foreign ministry said in response to questions by The Wall Street Journal that China has sovereignty over Thitu Island, which Beijing calls Zhongye Island, and the adjacent waters, and that it was ‘beyond reproach’ for Chinese boats to fish there.”
Background: "The Philippines is building a beaching ramp to make it easier for bigger ships to deliver supplies to Thitu Island and plans to upgrade a runway and other infrastructure on it. The island is home to a tiny population of Filipino civilians and troops. China has tried to talk the Philippines out of the construction projects in the past."
Deep background: Catch up on the history of China-Philippine tensions in the vicinity of the South China Sea in part one of our two-part podcast, Beyond South China Sea tensions, on Spotify here.
The more immediate concern: "Some Filipino officials worry the Chinese vessels’ continued presence is restricting access to the waters around Thitu Island, where Filipinos regularly fish," the Journal writes. "Chinese fishing vessels played a role in a 2012 standoff that resulted in China seizing a fisheries-rich feature, Scarborough Shoal, from the Philippines."
Said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday: “I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you [referring to China] that lay off the Pagasa because I have soldiers there. If you touch it, that’s a different story. I will tell the soldiers ‘prepare for suicide mission’,” Reuters reports.
Said Joseph Felter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, speaking to reporters in Bangkok on Thursday: “In this case, China’s activities are of concern. It seems to be somewhat aggressive and provocative and we feel that they’re unnecessary and unwarranted... We expect every country to be able to sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows." More from AP, here.

Russia is revamping an Arctic military base “to stake [a] claim on [the] region,” AP reports from the Severny Klever (Northern Clover) military base “on Kotelny Island, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea on the Arctic shipping route.”
The base "permanently houses up to 250 military personnel responsible for maintaining air and sea surveillance facilities and coastal defenses like anti-ship missiles," and contains "enough supplies to remain fully autonomous for more than a year."
The mission: “monitor the airspace and the northern sea route,” said base commander Lt. Col. Vladimir Pasechnik. Read on, here.

Apropos of nothing: Japan just exploded a bomb on an asteroid, AP reports this morning from Tokyo. “The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Hayabusa2 dropped a small explosive box which sent a copper ball the size of a baseball slamming into the asteroid, and that data confirmed the spacecraft had safely evacuated and remained intact.”
Next up, “JAXA plans to send Hayabusa2, which was moved to the other side of the asteroid, back to the site after dust and debris settle for observations and to collect samples of material from the new crater that was unexposed to the sun or space rays.”
And why: “Scientists hope the samples will help them understand the history of the solar system, since asteroids are left over material from its formation.” Read on, here.

The LA Times and ProPublica teamed up to create a very interesting project: “How border patrol chases have spun out of control, with deadly consequences.
The report combines video, graphics and journalism to compelling effect — and it even looks great on mobile devices. See for yourself, here.

And finally this week: A interactive report on China’s dystopian surveillance from The New York Times. The title: “How China Turned a City Into a Prison.”
Prepare yourself: If you click the link above, your computer will turn into essentially a TV monitor with images and captions and narration guiding you through the city of Kashgar. It is not an ordinary read; but it’s an extraordinary tale of an old culture colliding with 21st-century technology in the hands of an authoritarian government. Begin your guided tour of Kashgar, here.

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