Russia’s Crimea buildup; More troops to Poland; Evading US missile defenses; ‘Wrong weapons’ for Taiwan; And a bit more.

Buildup on Crimea. Russia has added troops, aircraft, and weapons to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in what amounts to a “significant” buildup of forces over the past 18 months, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports today, citing “U.S. intelligence officials, observers, and new satellite photos that reveal the locations of new S-400 air defense systems and improvements to Soviet-era bases.”

Taken together, it all “suggests that Russia is interested in being able to exercise more control over the Black Sea, which then affords them the ability to project power beyond their immediate environment,” said Sarah Bidgood, the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury College’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“This is a significant buildup,” she said. “NATO is going to be under increasing pressure from allies in the region to show that it’s able to push back against Russian attempts to gain greater control of the Black Sea. To me, that’s a really dangerous environment.”

See for yourself satellite photos of five S-400 installations from private sat company Planet Labs, here.

From Defense One

EXCLUSIVE: US Intelligence Officials and Satellite Photos Detail Russian Military Buildup on Crimea // Patrick Tucker: Five S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries, plus additional troops and fighters, let Moscow better defend the Black Sea and threaten Europe and the Middle East.

Buttigieg Rips Congress Over War Powers // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The Navy vet’s insurgent campaign has skyrocketed him to 14 percent in an early Iowa poll.

US to Send 1,000 More Troops to Poland // Patrick Tucker and Katie Bo Williams: Last fall, Warsaw asked for a tank division. Looks like they're getting rotating logistics troops instead.

The US Wants to Sell Taiwan the Wrong Weapons // Enea Gjoza: The proposal to send tanks, and not A2/AD weapons, exposes a flawed American strategy.

The CBP Theft Is Exactly What Privacy Experts Said Would Happen // Sidney Fussell, The Atlantic: The more information the government collects, the more attractive that information is to bad actors.

Trump’s New Arctic Policy Has a Familiar Ring // Rebecca Pincus: Administration officials are talking tough on Russia and China, while picking fights with allies that are making U.S. goals harder to achieve.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1924, George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18 and became the youngest pilot in the service, eventually taking part in one of the largest air battles of World War II, the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Internment at Sill, revisited. For four years from 1942 to 1946, Oklahoma’s Fort Sill served as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Today, the base “has been selected to detain 1,400 children until they can be given to an adult relative,” Time’s Bill Hennigan reported Tuesday off an update from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The quick read: “Health and Human Services said in a statement that it has taken about 40,900 children into custody through April 30. That’s a 57% increase from last year, which is a rate on-pace to surpass the record figures in 2016, when 59,171 minors were taken into custody. The agency had assessed two other military bases before selecting Fort Sill.”
This was also done five years ago, Hennigan writes, when “the Obama Administration placed around 7,700 migrant children on bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma, including Fort Sill.” However, those “temporary shelters were shuttered after four months.” Read on, here.

There are just 35 legislative work days to go before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. And in the current political environment, “the odds remain low that both parties can agree to an overall [defense] spending level by the start of the fiscal year,” warn Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger of AEI in a Monday analysis of continuing resolutions. “This means that federal agencies, including the U.S. military, will almost certainly begin another year under a spending freeze at last year’s budget levels.” Read on to learn how “Continuing resolutions negatively impact the military in three main ways,” here.
But don’t stop there, because Berger has more for you this week. And that includes an analysis in Real Clear Defense of “the Pentagon’s decision to purchase new F-15X fighters to replace geriatric F-15Cs.”
His starting point: “In the absence of a convincingly argued case for the F-15C replacement decision, the public debate devolved into a fight between Boeing’s F-15X, the modernized fourth-generation fighter, and Lockheed’s F-35A, the stealthy fifth-generation alternative. Framing the F-15X purchase as an either/or proposition vis a vis the F-35 makes for a compelling story but does not accurately capture the complexities of the case for replacing aging F-15Cs.” More here.

Happening today: “The House Armed Services Committee sits down to markup the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act—the must-pass legislation that determines defense policies and budget,” Just Security’s Annie Himes, Julia McKay and John T. Nelson write in a new analysis. Worth the click, here.

North Korea is trying to defeat U.S. missile defenses “such as Patriot, Aegis BMD, and THAAD, all of which are or will be deployed in the region,” according to a new Congressional Research Service report released last week and flagged Monday by Reuters Korea correspondent Josh Smith.
Key excerpts:

  • "Most recently, North Korea tested short-range ballistic missiles on May 4 and 9," which was an assessment President Trump did not share, calling the missiles merely “small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me” in a May 25 tweet.
  • "Testing as well as official North Korean statements suggest that North Korea is striving to build a credible regional nuclear warfighting capability that might evade regional ballistic missile defenses... rais[ing] serious questions about crisis stability and escalation control."
  • And finally: “North Korea may be building a credible regional nuclear warfighting and ICBM nuclear deterrent capability.”

Acting SecDef Shanahan blindsided the Chinese military delegation in Singapore 11 days ago with what “at first glance looked like a coffee table book [but] was actually 32 pages of photographs and satellite images of North Korean ships getting and delivering shipments of oil,” the Associated Press’s Lita Baldor reported Tuesday.
Why the gift stung its recipients: “Many of the photos are stamped with dates, times, locations and descriptions, and, according to officials, represent proof that Pyongyang is violating punishing economic sanctions right off China’s coast.”
Why this matters: “China agreed to the U.N. sanctions against its ally and neighbor North Korea, but, as the photo book illustrates, appears to be allowing violations to take place.”
Said CSIS’s Bonnie Glaser to AP: “It’s actually very clever. It’s really calling out China. This is a way of telling them that we know what’s going on, we have quite a bit of evidence, and here’s an opportunity for you to expand cooperation with the United States.” Read on, here.

BTW: Trump may be losing his enthusiasm for Acting SecDef Shanahan as his formal pick to lead the Pentagon, NBC News reported Tuesday “according to four people familiar with the conversations.”
Critical caveat: “Trump's private solicitation of opinions about alternatives for Shanahan doesn't mean he will ultimately choose a different nominee. The president often asks aides and confidants for their thoughts on a staffer he's second-guessing at the moment without that individual being immediately forced out.” More on the WH gossip and Trump’s hesitation, here.

And now for something completely different: “A Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece, whose whereabouts has been a mystery since it sold in 2017 for a record $450 million, has turned up in an unlikely place,” Bloomberg reported this week off “intel” from Artnet News. That place? Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's 439-foot superyacht, Serene.
Where do you take a yacht like that? “In the Red Sea off Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town on the Sinai Peninsula,” as of May 26, Bloomberg writes. And in case you’re wondering (because we certainly don’t have friends like MBS), “While the high seas may not be the best place for a fragile Old Master painting, it’s not uncommon for the super-wealthy to decorate their yachts with trophy art.”
Joked Middle East watcher Hend Amry: “Let the person who doesn’t store their Da Vinci paid for by state coffers in their private yacht cast the first stone.”

And finally today: Crop fires are spreading across wheat and barley fields in northeastern Syria, a place with no fire departments or water trucks, but lots of carpets. And that’s just what Syrians are using this week — see here — to try and put out the flames now consuming more than 20,000 acres of land in Syria and at least 20,000 more acres in Iraq, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported late last week.
What’s going on? What remains of ISIS was quick to take credit for some of the devastation, but it’s not really clear that they deserve it. “Discussions with farmers point less to an organized crop burning campaign than toward a patchwork of retaliatory acts” against ISIS and former ISIS sympathizers in Syria, according to a group of Syria-watchers called Synaps.
Other exacerbating factors: Inexperienced, out-of-area laborers tossing cigarettes into dry wheat fields; poor-quality fuel prone to unsafe and unplanned ignition; and a local infrastructure decimated by years of civil war and unrest.
Undermining recovery: The out-of-control flames are “undermin[ing] recovery prospects after eight years of violent upheaval,” according to Synaps. For example, “In the northeast, families aspiring to rebuild homes or reopen businesses invested their hopes and resources into this season’s crop; many have seen those ambitions burn with their fields.” Which all shows how “Syria’s economic fabric has been eroded in profound, self-perpetuating ways, which will continue to trigger far-reaching and sometimes unpredictable consequences.” Read on, here.