Acting SecDef No. 3; US still silent on Turkey; Secret cyberwar directive; ISIS’s new side hustle; And a bit more.

Esper to the Hill. Mark Esper is presently trying to convince the Senate Armed Services Committee that he’s the man to lead the Pentagon, which has been without a confirmed leader for its longest period ever — which is to say since James Mattis resigned in December.

Reminder: Spencer in as acting SecDef. Esper’s formal nomination went to the Senate at 3:04 p.m. on Monday, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports, at which point Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer became the third acting defense secretary since January. (Esper can’t simultaneously serve as acting while standing for confirmation.)

“It’s the latest move in a bizarre game of musical chairs playing out at the Pentagon, which now has vacancies at 18 top political positions. And that game could continue well into the summer,” Weisgerber reports. Read on for the details, here

Extra reading: If confirmed, “Esper would further the president’s drift from military brass,” the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef reported Monday in a quietly stunning article featuring candid perspectives on internal White House deliberations — including chats featuring the former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The title of that WSJ article: “Generals Fall Out of Favor as Trump Advisers.”

The illustration involving Mattis: "Mr. Mattis, for his part, repeatedly clashed with Mr. Trump over policy," Lubold and Youssef report. "In one tense meeting in the Oval Office, the president told Mr. Mattis he didn’t know what he was doing and implored him to stop talking, then made fun of him for talking as if he had marbles in his mouth, according to two people familiar with the exchange. Another person disputed the characterization, saying the two had heated exchanges but that the president didn’t mock the general." Read on behind the paywall, here

One less "acting" soon? On Monday, President Trump formally nominated Lisa Hershman to be the Defense Department’s next Chief Management Officer. She’s already the department’s Deputy Chief Management Officer who also happens to be the Acting Chief Management Officer. 

A bit more about Hershman, via the White House: “Before joining the Department of Defense, Ms. Hershman was Founder and CEO of The DeNovo Group, and is the former CEO of Hammer and Company.  Ms. Hershman also served as Senior Vice President of Operational Excellence at Avnet, where her work was honored with the Avnet Corporate Chairman’s Award.” 

From Defense One

Inside the Pentagon’s Game of Musical Chairs // Marcus Weisgerber: Richard V. Spencer is the year’s third acting defense secretary — but there are a lot more moving pieces than that.

US Could Use Turkish F-35 Parts Contracts to Entice New Customers // Marcus Weisgerber: Ankara is on track to forfeit work worth billions of dollars if it is booted from the F-35 program.

Interior Dept. Will Buy Chinese Drones Despite Spy Concerns // Jack Corrigan: Agency officials say they have taken various technical precautions to keep DJI from gathering intelligence with their drones. 

2020 Democrats Have Found Their Foreign-Policy Battle Cry // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: Casting Trump as a threat to global democracy and American security, they aim to persuade voters that the danger is real.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1945, the U.S. detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb in a test with the now-famous code name, “Trinity.” Explore how the U.S. and the Soviets grappled with this weapon, and the increasingly terrible implications it held for each nation’s society, in our podcast episode from late April, “Nuclear weapons awareness in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Did the Iranian navy just force a UAE vessel into Iranian waters near Iran’s Qeshm island? It looks that way, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Monday, citing U.S. intelligence, as OSINT-watchers scanned ship tracker data for clues. 
About the ship, via the Associated Press today: “The Riah, a 58-meter (190-foot) oil tanker, typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. However, something happened to the vessel after 11 p.m. on Saturday, according to tracking data.”
Additionally concerning: “Iranian officials have not said anything publicly about the ship, nor have officials in the UAE. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees Mideast waters, declined to immediately comment.”
And as that played out publicly, “Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested for the first time that the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations with the U.S., a possible opening for talks as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington,” AP writes. 
That interview with Zarif aired Monday evening on NBC News, and you can catch the extended chat online, here

We are now in day five of the U.S. government’s silence on parts of the Russian S-400 air defense system arriving in Turkey, an absence Reuters Idrees Ali noted yesterday. There was a 5 p.m. presser planned at the Pentagon Monday, but that — like pressers planned late last week — was cancelled at the last minute.

The Trump administration begins a new arms control effort this week, “sending a high-level delegation to meet with Russian counterparts in Geneva” to “cap the nuclear arsenals of not just the two largest powers [the U.S. and Russia], but China as well,” according to the New York Times.
The Trump White House has argued that “two-way Russian-American arms agreements dating to the Cold War are antiquated in a world where China is a rising power, although it remains unclear how committed he really is to any new accord given his administration’s skepticism of arms control.”
One problem: Beijing has no interest in such a deal. Read on, here.

In other surprising air-defense messaging Monday, Lockheed Martin’s CEO Marilyn Hewson got some free air time on the White House’s Twitter feed after her crew carted a THAAD missile defense system to the front lawn of the White House for “Made in America” day. 
Hewson recorded a 20-second message to Americans, backed by a jangly piano and brass band, highlighting how the THAAD system supports 25,000 U.S. workers. Find that ad, produced with American taxpayer money, on Twitter over here

The Taliban are not thrilled with hearing women on the radio, so alleged members of the group reportedly threatened one station — Samaa, “broadcasting political, religious, social and entertainment programs” out of Ghazni province since 2013 — and now the station has shut down, Reuters reports
For the record, Big Taliban, via spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, “denied that a Taliban commander had issued the threats.” However, “The radio station’s director, Ramez Azimi, said Taliban commanders in the area had sent written warnings and telephoned in, to tell the radio station to stop employing women.”
Related reading from the New York Times this weekend: “The Taliban Promise to Protect Women. Here’s Why Women Don’t Believe Them.

Also from Afghanistan,  a car bomb detonated in the southern city of Kandahar on Monday, killing 13 and wounding more than 30, Khaama Press reports
In other Afghan news Monday, Task & Purpose delivered this: “The Taliban drove his family out of Afghanistan when he was a child. Now he wants to go back as a Marine.”
As U.S. diplomats continue to debate peace terms with the Taliban, below are some questions former Pakistani diplomat Touqir Hussian asked Monday in The National Interest as the process drags on: 

  • “What will be the new ethnic balance now that the non-Pashtun population is more empowered than ever before? 
  • How will warlords and their militias, drug mafia and corruption be dealt with? 
  • How do you sustain a commitment to education, human rights, political freedoms, socio-economic advancement, and women’s rights of which America’s war could only give a flickering glimpse? 
  • Finally, how do you improve the rural economy and infrastructure, and bridge the rural urban and sectarian divides?” Read on, here

ISIS has turned to the surprisingly lucrative wood smuggling business in eastern Afghanistan, Foreign Policy reported Monday from Kunar province. 
The gist: “Small numbers of fighters for the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, the Afghan branch of the militant group, have been in Kunar since 2015. But the group’s new stronghold is in Kunar’s deep forests, inheriting a booming wood industry previously controlled by the Taliban that is now generating a growing income for Islamic State militants.” 
For what it’s worth, “each tree costs between 3,000 and 5,000 Pakistani rupees—the currency predominantly used in the region—amounting to about $20 to $30. When cut, each tree makes about 15 planks, each 8 feet by 1 foot, which go for 12,000 rupees (about $75).” Read on, here

Airwars just released a new study on the “major challenges in US media coverage of civilian harm” in conflicts like, e.g., the war on ISIS. Their starting point: “Despite most surveyed journalists believing that the reporting of civilian harm is critical to broader war coverage, major US news organisations too often failed properly to report on the issue during the conflict against ISIS.” 
So, why has reporting civilian harm been so difficult? 

  • “Declining foreign bureaus and newsroom staff at US media outlets;” 
  • “A ferocious news cycle dominated by domestic politics;” 
  • “The quandary of credible sourcing for civilian casualty claims;” 
  • “Little opportunity to embed with US troops on the ground;” 
  • and “the expense and risk of security and logistics for reporters in the field” are the dominant reasons. 

Some recommendations from Airwars: Adding “a clear editorial mandate for civilian harm coverage at media outlets,” as well as “persistent and well-resourced field reporting and balanced sourcing.” Improved “coordination of civilian harm coverage by Pentagon reporters and others covering the US military back home,” and improved “support for reputable initiatives and standards for alternative civilian harm counts;” and finally, improving journalists’ “training in disciplines related to civilian harm reporting.” Find the full report here
ICYMI: “How Many Civilians Die in Covert US Drone Strikes? It Just Got Harder to Say” (Defense One, March 2019).

Reminder: The U.S. Army has been worried about war in megacities — places with 10 million or more people — since at least 2014. And that was before ISIS took cities like Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa. "It is inevitable that at some point the United States Army will be asked to operate in a megacity and currently the Army is ill-prepared to do so," the Army's authors wrote five years ago. 
Why? In part, "The scale and connectedness of megacities lend gravity to events within them, which can quickly capture international attention and compel military commitment." 
Dive into that 2014 analysis, extrapolating some of the hardest lessons learned from counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, here

Then, get to better understand “the tolerance of Americans for inflicting enemy civilian casualties” today in a new analysis by Charli Carpenter of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, speaking to Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky for the most recent episode of his “Lawyers, Guns and Money” podcast. 
One curious, and upon closer inspection, somewhat obvious finding in Carpenter’s analysis: “What we know about norms, is that, to the extent they matter, they matter when we think others think they matter,” she told Farley. The norms in this instance are abiding by the tenets of the Geneva Convention and associated concerns today like, for example, indiscriminately bombing an Iranian or North Korean city. 
Some of the data and questions Carpenter attempted to answer and parse: Whether or not people thought it was legal to bomb civilians versus whether or not they ever thought it was ok to bomb civilians. 
One thing she learned: some 80% of respondents knew bombing civilians is not in line with the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, she said, “Even the Trump voters will drastically reduce their willingness to strike a city even if they’re just reminded that international law and morality exists, even if they don’t share those preferences.” 
Socialization and shared morality. “Americans actually care very much about the Geneva Conventions,” Carpenter said, but “that care is intersubjective: It’s not just that they care internally; it’s that they care if they’re in a social setting where they’re reminded that others might care.” Listen to the entire conversation, here.
ICYMI: The problem may get worse as the U.S. military shifts from a focus on counterinsurgency campaigns, in which the whole point is not alienating civilians, to larger-scale war, wrote Dan Mahanty and Annie Shiel of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. 
What are your questions about studies like the one from Airwars, or the U.S. Army on megacities, or about Carpenter’s work on civilian casualties? Would you like to know more about the approaches, or the solutions proposed? What are the researchers missing, from your perspective? We’ll be speaking to the authors of the Airwars study for an upcoming episode of Defense One Radio, and we’d love your thoughts. So email us at Or leave us a voice mail at 731-617-9124.

Moscow city officials say they’re planning a facial recognition system with 105,000 cameras, NPR’s Lucian Kim reports today, sharing a report in Russian. That would make Moscow’s city surveillance system “more powerful than China's,” Kim writes. 
In case this sounds familiar, CNAS’s Sam Bendett previewed a slightly more ambitious version of this plan in the op-ed pages of Defense One in mid-May, here

Meantime back stateside, "Facial Recognition Tech Is Growing Stronger, Thanks to Your Face," the NYTs reported Monday.

ICYMI: The Trump administration penned a new cyberwarfare directive last year, but the White House won’t let Congress see it, Roll Call’s John Donnelly reported late last week. As a result, House lawmakers on Thursday approved an amendment “which would force the administration to turn over “all National Security Presidential Memorandums relating to Department of Defense operations in cyberspace… as part of a package of noncontroversial amendments to the annual defense policy bill.”
Bigger picture: “The House’s push for direct access to seminal policy documents on cyberwarfare comes as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have stepped up hacking, economic espionage, disinformation, propaganda and other operations. The Trump administration has made clear that it is likewise boosting its cyber operations — both defensive and, increasingly, offensive.” More here
This seems like a good time to plug our newest podcast on Cyberwarfare today, focusing on data breaches, extortion and information warfare campaigns. 
Later this week, we’ll turn to “Cyberwarfare tomorrow,” featuring frightening scenarios involving quantum technological advances, a “post-encryption world,” and a look at what life could look like once machines take over, with the help of CNA Corp.’s Dawn Thomas and others. 

BTW: The Philippines just chose Chinese companies to expand its telecoms network, shunning American warnings about the security risks involved, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. 
Surveying the broader 5G landscape, the Journal writes, “Huawei, which has repeatedly said it wouldn’t spy for China, estimates its 5G equipment will spread across more than 130 countries, including in Europe. Huawei’s 5G system is up and running in South Korea and will be deploying in the United Arab Emirates this year. Both countries are U.S. allies.”

Remember that British leak scandal? UK authorities have now ruled out hacking by a foreign government, and have now shifted to a mole hunt among British intelligence, The Times reported behind its paywall on Sunday. But you can read about it via Reuters, here.  

And lastly today: Neo-nazis in Italy were caught with “a French-made Matra air-to-air missile that appeared to have once belonged to the Qatar armed forces,” Reuters reported Monday from Rome. 
Worth noting: “the weapon was in working condition but lacked an explosive charge.”
Also captured in the raid: “26 guns, 20 bayonets, 306 gun parts, including silencers and rifle scopes, and more than 800 bullets of various calibers,” along with “Nazi memorabilia.”
How these were found: “Elite police forces searched properties across northern Italy following an investigation into Italians who had fought alongside Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,” Reuters writes. “Police said the suspects had tried to sell the missile in conservations with contacts on the WhatsApp messaging network.” A bit more, here.