Breaking: PACOM braces for long-range DPRK missile; More Afghanistan withdrawals coming?; Fooling satellites; Military planning should add economic tools; And a bit more.

BREAKING: North Korea’s “Christmas gift” to the U.S. will likely be a long-range missile test, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, told Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber and other reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast this morning. “You go back to May and you’ve seen a series of short-range ballistic missiles and the moratorium is for a long-range ballistic missile,” said Brown, the top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific. “So what I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift. It’s just a matter of, does it come on Christmas Eve? Does it come on Christmas Day? Does it come in after the new year?”

Why does the general believe a launch is imminent? “You can listen to the rhetoric and the various tests that have occurred over the past week or two that are all indications that there’s activity,” Brown said. “There is activity that the North Koreans have actually admitted to to match up with the rhetoric. And there’s a pattern that you see with the North Koreans is their rhetoric precedes activity, which precedes a launch.”

Fixed or mobile launcher? “It’s tough to say. We’re watching.”

Or maybe no launch at all: “I think there are a range of things that could occur,” Brown said. “I think there’s also a possibility that the self-imposed moratorium may go away and nothing happens right away. He [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] announces it, but then doesn’t shoot.”

In the meantime: “Our job is to backstop the diplomatic efforts. If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we gotta be ready,” Brown said.

Possible U.S. response? After Pyongyang tested ballistic missiles in 2017, U.S. bombers and stealth fighters paired up with South Korean fighter jets to fly near North Korea. “We are looking at all the things we’ve done in the past,” Brown said.

From Defense One

China Has Increasing Sway in US Science: Report // Patrick Tucker: Beijing is using better jobs opportunities at home, aggressive intelligence agencies, and a greater financial reach to influence American institutions.

US Forces Can’t Hide from Ubiquitous Satellites. They Need to Fool Them. // Josef Koller: A new generation of deception-and-denial ideas is needed to counter global monitoring from space.

Add Economic Policy to Deterrence Planning // Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama: As crisis brews overseas, U.S. leaders often turn first to sanctions and the like. But the Pentagon acts as if economic coercion doesn’t matter.

The Foreign-Policy Parallels Between Trump and the Ayatollahs Are Uncanny // Jon B. Alterman: Neither the U.S. president nor Iran's leaders are as willing to go toe-to-toe as they might seem.

The FBI Needs to Be Reformed // Jack Goldsmith and Bob Bauer, The Atlantic: The inspector general’s report identified real weaknesses, particularly with the policies and procedures that govern investigations of political campaigns.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson, Marcus Weisgerber and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1957, the U.S. Air Force tested an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in a launch from Cocoa Beach, Fla. 

The White House wants to withdraw about 4,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday (Associated Press) during a trip to Kabul. Graham’s words follow a weekend report from NBC News featuring the same number, as well as a reminder that President Donald Trump has said he intends to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan before the 2020 election. 
Such a reduction “will leave between 8,000 and 9,000 U.S. troops” in “a phased withdrawal that would occur over a few months,” NBC reported Saturday.
Said Graham: “I believe we can responsibly reduce our forces—if the number 8,600 is chosen, it’s a good decision; it is not a threat to American national security. To go below that, I believe, [there] would have to be substantial change—a peace agreement that’s real, that would stand the test of time.” 
Why Graham thinks now is a good time: “The Afghan security forces are getting more capable,” he said. (That’s debatable. In August, Stars and Stripes reported that the Afghan National Security Forces were at their lowest staffing numbers in four years.) Continued Graham: “As they achieve capability, the number of U.S. forces necessary can go down.”
A withdrawal decision could be made “in the next few weeks,” Graham said. And if that’s indeed Trump’s desire, Graham supports it, the Wall Street Journal reports.
For the record, “U.S. defense officials have said the U.S. military could reduce the number of troops to 8,600 without compromising its counterterrorism capability,” the Journal writes. 
Said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday: “I think, again, today the best solution for Afghanistan is a political agreement. But I think we could go down to a lower number with or without that political agreement.”
What Esper wants to do with the removed forces: “either bring those troops home, so they can refit and retrain for other missions or/and be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition that's vis-a-vis China,” he said Monday.
It’s worth repeating that last part of Esper’s answer: “...redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition that's vis-á-vis China.” More on China and the surrounding region below.
How Afghan press is presenting the news: 

  • “Esper wants troop cut with or without peace deal.” (Pajhwok)
  • “Possible Afghanistan Drawdown Without Peace Deal: Esper,” (ToloNews)

Contrarian’s take: “Trump’s Afghanistan Policy? Talk Tough, Then Just Pull the Plug,” Christopher Dickey writes over at The Daily Beast.

China just commissioned its second aircraft carrier at a South China Sea base, Reuters reports. It’s already sailed some seas, including a trip through the Taiwan Strait in November. 
Location for the commissioning: “a naval base in Sanya in the southern island province of Hainan, a major facility on the coast of the South China Sea.” 
For what it’s worth, “both of China’s [carriers] feature Soviet-design ski-jump bows, intended to provide sufficient take-off lift for fighter jets. They lack the powerful catapult launch technology U.S. carriers have.” What’s more, “China’s first two carriers are relatively small, accommodating only up to 25 aircraft… U.S. carriers routinely deploy with nearly four times that number.”
President Xi Jinping was on hand for today’s event, and even “boarded the ship, chatting with its crew and offering his ‘affirmation’ for China’s success at building its own carrier,” Reuters writes off a report from state-run media. In addition to Xi, “Vice Premier Liu He who has been leading trade talks with the United States,” was also present, as well as Zhang Youxia, “one of the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission which is in charge of the armed forces and which Xi heads.”
More would seem to be coming. “Satellite images show the construction of a new, much bigger carrier is progressing steadily alongside expansive infrastructure work,” Reuters reports. This new one “is expected to be China’s first carrier with a flat deck and catapult launch system, allowing the use of a wider range of aircraft and more heavily armed fighter jets.”
From the region: China is upset Malaysia wants to formalize its “continental shelf in the northern part of the disputed South China Sea,” Reuters reports separately today from Kuala Lumpur. China lodged its protest to the UN, telling Reuters Beijing thinks Malaysia’s claim “infringes on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and also violates the basic principles of international law.” More here.

A South Korean-born Australian janitor allegedly helped “North Korea sell missile parts and coal on the black market,” the Wall Street Journal reports today.
The man in question: Chan Han Choi, "a soft-spoken janitor in his early 60s" who worked "from a rented apartment” in Sydney. “Mr. Choi was arrested in late 2017 and has pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including providing services for a weapons-of-mass-destruction program.”
Why we’re hearing about him now: His trial begins in February, the Journal reports. He applied to have his cases thrown out, but his application was denied on Dec. 5. The intrigue continues behind the paywall, here.

India says it has tested two variants of a supersonic regional cruise missile, the Economic Times reports today.
ICYMI, a week ago: 11 Chinese migrants were found hiding inside furniture and appliances while trying to enter the US from Mexico. CNN has more, here.

Two Marine Raiders and a Navy corpsman charged in death of American contractor. Richard Anthony Rodriguez, a former Green Beret who returned to Iraq as an employee of Lockheed Martin, was injured Jan. 1 outside a bar in Erbil in a fight, according to Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Rodriguez was struck in the head and medevaced to Germany, where he died on Jan. 4. Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Draher, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Negron, and Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and other offenses. (Task & Purpose)

Finally today: The latest “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer dropped Monday, and, yes, we paused our morning meeting at Defense One HQ to watch it.
Spoiler alert: deploying the air brake apparently still works like a charm. Watch, here.