The U.S. military sent a squadron of B-52 bombers closer to Iran on Monday, with some flying out of Barksdale, Ariz., and toward Diego Garcia out in the Indian Ocean, CNN and Fox reported. The aircraft “will be available for operations against Iran if ordered,” a U.S. official told Barbara Starr. “But the deployment does not signal that operations have been ordered,” she tweeted.
That followed news of 5,000 or so U.S. Marines and sailors also headed to the Middle East aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship. (For the record, the Bataan “was already headed for the region to do a now-cancelled training exercise with Morocco,” the BBC’s Joan Soley tweeted.)
Big picture: “The new deployments will put the total number of U.S. troops, airmen and sailors in the Middle East at more than 80,000,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Task & Purpose has a more detailed roundup of the recently-deployed forces, here.
About 200 U.S. paratroopers of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team were routed to the region as well on Monday. Some of them are tasked with bolstering security at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. And that’s in line with what Defense Secretary Mark Esper and staff described to reporters in an effort to clear the air at the Pentagon after an apparently leaked letter emerged from the U.S. military in Iraq.
Long story short: "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper told reporters. “The U.S. is actually just “moving some forces around to appropriately place our folks on the ground to be in very good defensive positions,” a defense official told Military Times. “We are keeping our force safe. There is no change in policy as far as a wide-scale exit.”
Explained Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley (via the BBC): "[The letter] was sent over to some key Iraqi military guys in order to get things co-ordinated for air movements, etc. Then it went from that guy's hands to another guy's hands and then it went to your hands. Now it's a kerfuffle."
But the U.S. has officially suspended its counter-ISIS mission (CNN, New York Times) to protect its forces in the Middle East since the U.S. drone strike Thursday that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
And NATO just formally suspended its counter-ISIS training mission in Iraq, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Monday from Brussels. "In everything that we do, the safety of our personnel is paramount," Stoltenberg said. "As such, we have for the time being suspended our training on the ground. And we are taking all precautions necessary to protect our people… we remain in close contact with the Iraqi authorities. NATO is prepared to continue our training and capacity-building when the situation permits."
By the way: “Geopolitical tensions are at their highest level this century, and this turbulence is escalating,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday. What’s more, “Even nuclear non-proliferation can no longer be taken for granted,” he said. “This cauldron of tensions is leading more and more countries to take unpredicted decisions with unpredictable consequences and a profound risk of miscalculation.” Voice of America has more, here.
- Esper’s reply: "We will follow the laws or armed conflict."
- Starr: "And that means no because targeting a cultural site is a war crime?"
- Esper: "That's the laws of armed conflict."
One other lingering question: Was killing Suleimani an “assassination”? The New York Times’ Charlie Savage assessed that and seven other important Qs from last week’s drone strike on Monday. His answer to the “assassination” question: “It is unclear. It depends both on the definition of ‘assassination’ and on the strength of the secret intelligence that the Trump administration has said backs its claim that General Suleimani was plotting an ‘imminent’ attack on American forces in Iraq.” (Indeed, al-Monitor’s Jack Detsch reported Monday “there was internal dissent inside the Pentagon over whether to carry out the strike and if the Pentagon had the legal backing for the move.”)
Worth noting: “General Suleimani was a high-ranking official of a national government, not a leader of a nonstate terrorist group,” Savage writes. “But further complicating matters, last year Mr. Trump designated the branch of the Iranian military that General Suleimani led a foreign terrorist organization, the first time the United States deemed a state entity to meet that criteria.” More, here.
Meanwhile in Iran, “At least 40 were killed and 213 injured after a stampede at Qasem Soleimani's funeral today,” CNN reports off Iranian state-run Fars news agency. “Soleimani's body was due to be buried today, but Press TV reported the burial has been delayed because of the massive crowds.” More from today’s developing Iran news, here.
From Defense One
Soleimani Strike Splits 2020 Democrats // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: It also opens up a key weakness for frontrunner Joe Biden.
US Government To Restrict Sale of AI for Satellite Image Analysis // Patrick Tucker: Software that can analyze satellite photos would be treated like a weapon.
Don’t Use the Iran Crisis As An Excuse To Boost Pentagon Spending // William Hartung: Use it to reconsider the American approach to national security.
US-Iranian Diplomacy Almost Worked. Let’s Try It Again // Daniel DePetris: Direct talks may be too much to ask for at this stage, but tension-reduction measures promoted by third parties are still very plausible.
5G Is Where China and the West Finally Diverge // Lindsay Gorman, The Atlantic: The rollout of speedy new cellular networks is a geopolitical turning point, but neither Trump nor the public yet recognizes this.
The Blueprint Iran Could Follow After Soleimani’s Death // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: Here’s what to expect after the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful military commander.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1948, Kentucky Air National Guard Capt. Thomas F. Mantell, Jr., crashed his F-51 Mustang while chasing "a metallic object of tremendous size," as he described it in his final moments of radio chatter before death. Mantell eventually ascended to 25,000 feet in his chase, passed out from a lack of oxygen, and fell to earth in an unconscious, fatal spiral. The object he pursued wasn’t a UFO, though his death initially became part of the “alien” lore of 1950s America; rather, it's believed to have been one of the balloons in the CIA’s top-secret Skyhook program.
We now know a bit more about some of the Americans killed in Kenya on Sunday. The Defense Department on Monday released the name of the soldier who died in the attack by al-Shabab militants on the Manda Bay Airfield:
- Spc. Henry J. Mayfield Jr., age 23, from Evergreen Park, Illinois. And he was assigned to 1st Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment, 164th Theater Airfield Operations Group, out of Fort Rucker, Ala. He joined the Army in 2017 to be able to afford to continue his college, according to his father, who spoke to the Chicago Tribune on Monday. "He told me everything would be okay,” his mother told NBC News. “Those were his last words to me."
Two other Pentagon contractors were also killed in the attack.
- One was Dustin Harrison of Tucson. And Arizona’s KOLD 13 spoke briefly to his wife about his “silent hero” legacy, here. The other contractor’s name has not yet (to our knowledge) been publicly released.
UK sends warships to escort commercial vessels through Hormuz strait. “The imminent move to protect UK-flagged ships came on Saturday as the Foreign Office was strengthening its travel warnings across the region as fears of all-out war heightened,” The Guardian reported Monday.
The U.S. Navy has not apparently followed suit just yet. But on Friday, it directed the Bataan and its embarked Marines to drop a scheduled exercise in the Mediterranean and head to the Persian Gulf. And the Navy continues to provide intelligence on the Gulf situation to allies through its Operation Sentinel, USNI News reports.
President Trump vastly overstated Pentagon’s procurement spending while threatening Iran. “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!”
“This is not correct,” responded CSIS’ Todd Harrison. “The TOTAL military budget over the past three years (FY17-19) was $2.0 trillion. The part of the budget spent on procurement of equipment was $0.42 trillion over that time. If you include R&D, it comes to $0.68 trillion.”
It's unclear why the president shows little apparent effort to be truthful here. Media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen offers this take: “He doesn't know anything. He doesn't care to learn. He has no policy views. Nothing he says can be trusted. He's not good at anything a president has to do. His model of leadership is the humiliation of others. These should be the six starting points for covering his presidency.”
And finally today: Behold an elephant walk of 52 F-35As in a single photo. The shot is by the U.S. Air Force’s R. Nial Bradshow and taken from an exercise on Monday out of Utah’s Hill Air Force Base that’d been planned for months.