Tanker showdown in the gulf; Russia’s ‘alarming’ stance on Arctic shipping; 3-star picked to lead Navy; VCJCS nom accused, cleared; And a bit more.

Three Iranian paramilitary ships tried to block a 140,000-ton BP oil tanker in the Hormuz Strait, but the situation changed “dramatically” once an accompanying British warship, HMS Montrose, pointed its guns at the trio, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.

Involved: “The British Heritage, a Suezmax oil tanker operated by BP under an Isle of Man flag,” Reuters reports

According to a statement from the British MoD, “HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away. We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”

The BP tanker “had been on its way to pick up a cargo of oil from Basra port in southern Iraq when it changed course earlier this week, without loading, over fears it would be seized by Iranian forces following Tehran’s threats,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “The tanker stopped off the coast of Saudi Arabia, and was located off the coast of Oman early Thursday morning.”

For the record: “BP is a partner in the development of Iraq’s Rumaila, the world’s third-largest producing field,” the Journal writes, “and it shipped around 50,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil in 2018, via the Strait of Hormuz.”

Find an illustration of the Hermitage’s route, via Agence France-Presse here.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (AP) called the episode “worthless,” and said the claims “are being made to create tension,” according to Iran's Fars news agency. 

Said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, via AFP: "There has been no confrontation in the last 24 hours with any foreign vessels, including British ones."

Said a U.S. Central Command spox to the Journal: “Threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution. The world economy depends on the free flow of commerce, and it is incumbent on all nations to protect and preserve this linchpin of global prosperity.”

Said the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet: No comment.

Said Kremlin spox Dmitry Peskov: “Freedom of navigation should be ensured in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.” (More on that below the fold.)

Said a BP spox: “We thank the Royal Navy for their support.” 

By the way, “four other UK registered tankers are currently present in the Gulf,” according to Reuters. 

Related reading:Allies in the Persian Gulf pushed the U.S. to confront Iran. Now they’re not sure what they want,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

One more thing: Defense Priorities’ Dan DePetris argues that it’s high time other nations did more to protect Gulf shipping. Read that, here

From Defense One

Russia, China Offer Challenges in the Arctic // Adm. James Foggo III: America’s top naval commander in Europe looks at the geostrategic challenges of the warming High North.

Sexual Assault Allegation Surfaces About Nominee for Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman // Marcus Weisgerber and Katie Bo Williams: Cleared by Air Force investigators, Gen. Hyten may yet face questions during his Senate confirmation process.

Brexit’s National-Security Impact: It’s More Than the Economy, Stupid // Michelle Shevin-Coetzee: The Trump Administration must broaden its trade-focused perspective, lest it find itself even more isolated from Washington’s closest allies and partners.

ICE and the Ever-Widening Surveillance Dragnet // Sidney Fussell, The Atlantic: ICE agents have used facial-recognition technology on state driver’s-license photos, turning a public database into a de facto criminal database.

There’s a Deal to Be Had Between the US and Iran // Dennis Ross, The Atlantic: For now, though, both sides seem to prefer escalating pressure.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber already, you can do that here. On this day in 1767, the man who would be America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was born in Braintree, Massachusetts. PBS reminds us of the pressure on little John’s shoulders, writing, “His father, John Adams, once said to him. ‘If you do not rise to the head of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness and slovenliness.’”

“The Navy reaches down to three-star level to pick the next chief of naval operations, [Vice] Adm. Mike Gilday,” the WSJ’s Gordon Lubold tweeted Wednesday off his co-bylined report with Nancy Youssef. "Adm. Gilday and other Navy officials met late Wednesday with Mr. Trump at the White House and Mr. Trump gave the nod to the nomination," Lubold and Youseff write. "Adm. Gilday was recently appointed to be the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and had been in that job for only a matter of months."
One contributing factor: “His background in cybersecurity—he had served as the commander of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and director of operations for U.S. Cyber Command.” 
Related: “Malware on the high seas,” is how DataBreachToday reported news that a U.S. Coast Guard vessel suffered “a significant cyber incident impacting [its] shipboard network” while entering a New York harbor in February. 
According to the USCG’s safety alert (PDF), issued Monday: “although the malware significantly degraded the functionality of the onboard computer system, essential vessel control systems had not been impacted. Nevertheless, the interagency response found that the vessel was operating without effective cybersecurity measures in place, exposing critical vessel control systems to significant vulnerabilities.”

Happening today on Capitol Hill: U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his appointment to replace Gen. Joseph Dunford as the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Catch the livestream here

An allegation of sexual assault — though found baseless by Air Force investigators — could complicate the Senate confirmation of a top general slated to become the U.S. military’s No. 2 officer. Gen. John Hyten, who currently leads U.S. Strategic Command and is nominated to become Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was accused just days after his nomination in April of perpetrating “abusive sexual contact” and creating “an unprofessional relationship,” Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber and Katie Bo Williams reported Wednesday. 
The accuser, a senior military officer, told the Associated Press that “Gen. John Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his aides. She said that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.” Read more from that interview, here.
The Air Force investigated, talking to more than 50 witnesses in three countries and 13 U.S. states in an “exhaustive” investigation, according to one senior defense official who talked to Defense One
“There was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten,” who cooperated with the investigation, Pentagon spokesman Col. DeDe Halfhill wrote in a Wednesday statement to Defense One.
But “the allegation could nevertheless complicate Hyten’s pathway to confirmation, previously seen as uncontroversial,” wrote Weisgerber and Williams. “Hyten is the latest in a string of Trump administration officials to face allegations of sexual assault during the confirmation process. If the Senate proceeds with Hyten’s nomination, he will likely face questioning from Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., both of whom have advocated for sexual assault victims and pushed for reforms to how the military handles sexual assault claims.” Read, here.

Freedom of navigation, Russian-style: The Kremlin’s stance on freedom of navigation in the Gulf is curious because they’ve recently said just the opposite about the warming Arctic.
Here’s Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa: “Russia has made alarming statements that appear to question the freedom of the seas in the Arctic,” Foggo writes at Defense One. “In March, the Russian government enacted a policy to require foreign governments to provide 45 days of advance notice for transits of sovereign immunity vessels along the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Kola Peninsula and the Bering Strait. The new law also requires foreign warships to embark a Russian pilot as well as provide details about the vessel, a clear violation of sovereign immunity. Russian officials have also said they may bar innocent passage through the territorial sea for any reason.” That’s part of a larger look by Foggo at security challenges in the High North. Read it all, here.

The more you know: POTUS and vets. The Pew Research Center polled U.S. veterans to find “that a majority (57%) approve of the way Trump is handling his duties as commander in chief, with about half (48%) saying his administration’s policies have made the military stronger.”
One possible downside for Trump-Pence 2020: “Nearly half (45%) say he doesn’t listen enough to military leaders in making national security decisions, and a similar share say they have little trust in him to make the right decisions about the use of military force.”
Another takeaway from Pew’s polling: “Among veterans, 64% say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting considering the costs versus the benefits to the United States, while 33% say it was. The general public’s views are nearly identical: 62% of Americans overall say the Iraq War wasn’t worth it and 32% say it was. Similarly, majorities of both veterans (58%) and the public (59%) say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.” More on that, here

BTW: Joe Biden will lay out his foreign-policy “vision” today, which reportedly involves a “vow to hold a summit of the world’s leading democracies during his first year in office.”
AP’s preview headline:Biden to promise US return to forefront of world democracies

The French parliament just passed a law imposing a 3% annual tax on Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon for services provided to French consumers, Agence France-Presse reports. The law is the first of its kind for any major economy, and puts Paris even more in the crosshairs U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump’s Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday the tax “unfairly targets American companies.”
So Lighthizer’s office will now begin what’s called a Section 301 investigation into the alleged unfair trade practices, and plans to “hold hearings to allow for public comment on the French tax issue for several weeks before issuing a final report,” AFP writes. 
For what it’s worth, “This type of investigation is the primary tool the Trump administration has used in the trade war with China to justify tariffs.” A bit more, here

In social media tracking news this week, the FBI put out a notice announcing it is looking for "services to a social media early alerting tool in order to mitigate multifaceted threats, while ensuring all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met." Details here

Rubio and American rare earths. Sen. Marco Rubio says he’ll introduce a bill designed to protect and boost America’s rare earth industry, the Journal reports
The quick read: Rubio’s bill “would allow investors to form a cooperative that is exempt from antitrust laws, in an attempt to shield it from government-backed competition from China and volatile markets that have made it virtually nonexistent in the U.S. The Secretary of Commerce would secure a charter for the business, though it would need to be privately funded and operated under the terms of the legislation.” 
This is as good a time as any to revisit our podcast from last October on Kentucky researchers digging through coal ash to locate and refine a local source for rare earths. Grab your headphones and skip ahead to the 28:53 mark here

Eye on automation and employment. Amazon says it’s spending $700 million to retrain a third of its workforce “as technology threatens to upend the way many of its employees do their jobs,” the Wall Street Journal reports

And finally today: Three months after bombing an asteroid some 180 million miles from Earth, Japan just sent its Hayabusa2 probe back to the site “to collect samples that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system,” AFP explains in a short video today. 
Find a graphic on the probe’s approach and mission, here. And you can get a better sense of the asteroid’s enormous size, here.