US levels more accusations at Iran; CYBERCOM’s malware in Russia’s grid; Proposed stealth jets unveiled in Paris; Why is deterrence failing? And a bit more.
CENTCOM says Iranian-backed forces and Iranian weapons are trying to shoot down U.S. drones, and sometimes they are successful. Take, for example, the MQ-9 Reaper drone Houthi rebels shot out of the Yemeni sky on June 6. The U.S. military saw no reason to publicize this until CENTCOM released video Thursday purporting to show Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces removing a limpet mine from the M/T Kokuka Courageous on June 13 in the Gulf of Oman. As we pointed out Friday, that video raised a host of questions central to matters of attribution and escalation amid wider U.S.-Iran tensions.
Instead of answering those questions, CENTCOM released a statement Sunday drawing attention to the weapons of the Houthis, a group even the UN views as an Iranian proxy, and a separate attempted shootdown during the June 13 episode in the Oman Gulf.
About the Houthis’ shootdown: According to CENTCOM, the June 6 episode over Yemen is believed to have been accomplished “by what we assess to be a Houthi SA-6 surface to air missile,” which Politico’s Wesley Morgan translates perhaps more usefully as a “vehicle-mounted missile.”
The second incident flagged by CENTCOM happened as the sun rose on June 13 and as a separate Reaper drone hovered over “the motor tanker (M/T) Altair and had observed the ship on fire.” That one is believed to have occurred thanks to “a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile,” which Morgan paraphrases as “a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.”
Recall that none of these shootdown narratives were mentioned until CENTCOM’s Thursday video raised those additional questions, which include concerns over who was in the alleged “IRGC Gashti Class patrol boat” and whether what was removed from the side of the Courageous was in fact a limpet mine. Sunday’s statement (unsupported by photo or video evidence) didn’t touch those questions, and seems to have raised a few more concerning what transpired on June 13.
Some of the new questions:
- What happened to the personnel after they fired the SA-7? Presumably if the missile missed the Reaper, there is a feed available showing where the shooters traveled next, possibly offering clues as to who they are/were.
- How do we know it was “a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile” and not any number of other kinds of modified SA-7s, since the Soviet-era weapons can be found in countless places across Yemen and Syria?
- And, of course: Why not explain more about the video released Thursday — where that boat came from, where it went to, and why the U.S. believes it was an IRGC boat with IRGC personnel who removed the alleged limpet mine?
For the record: What does an Iranian limpet mine look like? The answer is this (h/t @Arkenstoneblog).
And if you wanna know how limpet mines work, the New York Times’ John Ismay (former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician) filed this useful explainer on Friday.
You may wonder: How does the IRGC get its funding, if U.S. sanctions are hitting Iran so hard? The Wall Street Journal tackled that question Saturday, suggesting “recently-signed infrastructure contracts in Syria and Iraq as well as expanded smuggling networks” have provided the bulk of the cash. Story, here.
One key consideration (actually three) as all this drags on: Multiple things can be happening at the same time. Which is to say, “It is simultaneously possible for Iranian elements to be behind these attacks,” cautioned Luke O’Brien, one of your D-Brief-er’s former artillery officers, “that there are hawkish elements that are willing to use that to push for provocative military action, AND that overly aggressive military responses are a bad idea.”
Meantime, as we weigh the merits of escalation versus Iran, the Houthis are not letting up against the Saudis — allegedly launching new drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s southern Jizan and Abha airports, al-Jazeera and Reuters reported Sunday evening.
McGurk offers a warning: U.S.-Iran tensions will probably only get worse, but it doesn’t have to be this way, writes Trump’s former ISIS war czar Brett McGurk. Or, as he put it, “The risks of military confrontation — intended or unintended — will continue to rise” provided no White House officials critically review the current assumptions in Washington and adjusts the WH’s Iran policy. That’s the message from McGurk in an essay a little more than a week ago for Foreign Affairs.
A few key excerpts from McGurk’s own tweet-thread summary:
- “The US seems to have embarked on its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign with few allies and little forethought as to unintended consequences or how to respond if key assumptions… prove false.”
- “Iran appears to have made the strategic decision (not surprising) to resist economic pressure and respond asymmetrically, not directly against us. I suspect Iran’s aim is to draw the US in deeper to the Middle East and heighten US rifts with allies or force removal of new sanctions as a pre-condition to talks. Those are likely goals behind reckless acts.”
- “Thus, any US military response would need to be decisive and sustained over a period of months. That is not where a maximum pressure policy was supposed to lead.”
So what is his prescription? Calling together America’s allies for a unified, coherent reaction, with teeth. “In my view, targeting tankers in int’l waterways warrants a rallied international response with military measures to deter future incidents. If Washington had developed a policy with allies, it could rally the world to isolate Iran and reinforce economic with diplomatic pressure. Unfortunately, our great comparative advantage as a nation — building and working with alliances — has eroded, particularly with respect to Iran.”
Don’t get it twisted, McGurk continues. “Iran is a 5th-rate power. Its economy is smaller than our poorest state. Its defense budget a fraction of our regional allies. China & Russia are our near-peer rivals — and now sense advantage.”
His BLUF: “Iran is a real problem. But this policy is piling on strategic risk with little reward. It’s driving allies away & peer-competitors together. It’s not leading to talks but increasing risk of conflict. It’s ramifications go beyond the Middle East. Worth reassessing.” Read his full cautionary essay, here.
How Iran is ratcheting up the tensions today: By announcing “it would breach internationally agreed curbs on its stock of low-enriched uranium in 10 days,” Reuters reports, “but [Iranian officials] added European nations still ha[ve] time to save a landmark nuclear deal.”
From Defense One
Deterrence Is Failing — Partly Because Iran Has No Idea What the US Really Wants // Christopher J. Bolan: Successful deterrence requires clear delineation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. That needs to start, pronto.
How L3 Technologies Is Culture-Shifting Its Way into the Industry’s Top Tier // Marcus Weisgerber: Over the past 18 months, the company has overhauled its structure and various modus operandi.
Europe's Elections Suggest US Shouldn’t Be Complacent in 2020 // Liisa Past , The Conversation: The lesson is not that elections are secure, but that Russian and other subversives are choosy about when and how they engage.
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter Talks Iran, China, and Trump’s Late-Night Tweets // Olivia Paschal, The Atlantic: “I don’t want to have a war with Iran, but I know who would win.”
How the Climate Crisis Threatens the US Energy System // Amy Myers Jaffe, Council on Foreign Relations: The U.S. military is the largest customer of the U.S. electricity grid, and other insights from a two-day workshop convened by the Council on Foreign Relations
Vetting Foreigners’ Facebook Feeds Won’t Make Americans Safer // Faiza Patel and Harsha Panduranga, The Atlantic: The federal government wants visa applicants to cough up their social-media handles.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Marcus Weisgerber with Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! Subscribe here. On this day in 1885, the 450,000-pound Statue of Liberty arrived in New York City Harbor in 350 pieces packed in more than 200 cases.
We turn to France now for a dispatch from the annual Paris Air Show, which kicked off today before the sun rose on America’s east coast. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber is in Le Bourget and filed this report:
This is the most-watched air show in at least a decade, with so much activity in the defense and aerospace sector, between the grounding of the 737 Max, the proposed Raytheon-United Technologies merger, and the U.S. threatening to ban Turkey from the F-35 program.
Boeing executives were front and center this morning talking about the company’s work to fix 737 Max flight control problems that are suspected of having caused two crashes that killed nearly 400 people. The execs said a software fix seemed promising, but offered few more details. They did not say when they expect regulators to clear the plane for flight.
Unveiled: Airbus and Dassault took the sheet off a full-sized model of a new stealth fighter on which France and Germany are collaborating. Turkey also unveiled a full-scale model of a new stealth fighter it’s developing. Both proposed planes are much larger than the F-35, the latest American-made stealth fighter. They also both have two engines to the F-35’s one.
Add them to Britain’s Tempest jet, unveiled at the UK’s Farnborough Air Show last year, and Europe has three stealth fighters.
U.S. officials don’t seem concerned that their allies are going to outpace them technologically or take sales from the American-made F-35. “When they’re developing new technologies, which we, of course, encourage and want to collaborate with them on, but you have to take a look at how long is that going to take when we have fifth-generation airplanes like the F-35 that are operational and are flying right now,” Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan said, noting that Air Force F-35s are now deployed in Europe and the Middle East.
Stay tuned here for more from Weisgerber in Paris as the air show continues. And if you’re not subscribed to his Global Business Brief newsletter — you can do that here — what are you waiting for? His Paris Air Show 2019 preview can be found here.
U.S. hackers planted malware in Russia’s electrical grid in retaliation for Russian intrusion into U.S. infrastructure and to deter interference in America’s 2020 elections, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing “current and former government officials” interviewed over the past three months.
Implanting code in Russian infrastructure is a new development, although the sides have been probing each others’ grids since 2012, the Times says. U.S. Cyber Command is proceeding — “defending forward,” as commanding Gen. Paul Nakasone puts it — under new authorities issued by President Trump last summer in a still-classified document known as National Security Presidential Memoranda 13.
But no one reportedly told Trump about the new moves, fearing that he might tip off Russia. One reason given for why not: Trump’s 2017 disclosure of highly classified material in the Oval Office. And when Trump apparently found out about the Saturday Times report, he tweeted that the story was “NOT TRUE” and called the reporting “a virtual act of Treason.”
FWIW, Moscow says its grid is perfectly safe. “There are no serious concerns,” Yevgeny Lifshitz, a member of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. (Translation by the Moscow Times.)
And ICYMI: Russian hackers penetrated election systems in 39 U.S. states in 2016 — more than has been previously disclosed, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
Too much science for the Trump administration? On Friday night, the White House ordered cuts to federal science advisory boards, The Hill reports. “For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees,” Gretchen Goldman, the research director with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice. It's no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.”
By the numbers: Some 1,000 advisory committees with more than 60,000 members advise federal policymakers on “a range of topics including disposal of high-level nuclear waste, the depletion of atmospheric ozone, addressing AIDS and improving schools,” The Hill writes, citing data from the U.S. General Services Administration. “They are often filled by people considered to be at the top of their fields who can provide important technical advice.” Read on, here.
For your eyes only: “four tractor-trailers packed with nearly 800 migrants.” The trucks were intercepted by Mexican authorities on Saturday in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, AP reported on Sunday.
And finally today: An experimental PTSD treatment (a shot in the neck) could be a “breakthrough,” CBS News reported Sunday evening on “60 Minutes.”
Quick summary: “The new procedure called stellate ganglion block, or SGB, is so fast-acting that many believe it could be a game changer. Used for decades to treat chronic pain, it's only recently been tried for PTSD. Now the U.S. Army is spending $2 million to find out more.”
How it works: “a local anesthetic is injected deep into the neck to bathe a cluster of nerves called the stellate ganglion. These nerves help control the brain's fight or flight reactions, signals that go haywire with PTSD… When the anesthetic is injected it seems to numb, or turn off, the PTSD symptoms. It clears the body in a day, but the effects last up to 6 months, for some even longer. There are no known side effects.” Watch or read the rest, here.