Today's D Brief: Airstrikes on ISIS caves; A week of mass shootings; Marines’ new formation; NG convoy ambushed in Texas; And a bit more...

Happy anniversary, to the fall of ISIS. Kinda, sorta. Two years after U.S.-partnered Syrian Democratic Forces declared the end of the ISIS physical caliphate, those same local fighters are holding in limbo thousands of foreign fighters, women, and children. U.S. commanders think it would be a long shot for a full ISIS resurgence in Syria, but they are worried about a potential insurgency, training camps, and attacks on the West. The deserts are vast, and ISIS’s influence is growing from Nigeria to Afghanistan. 

Whose problem is this? “The world has wished to walk away from its responsibility in dealing with the aftermath of the Islamic State, but an international crisis requires an international solution, and it should not be left to a non-state actor,” writes author and frequent Defense One contributor Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, in a new commentary commemorating a moment seemingly already forgotten.

ICYMI: Katie Bo Williams reports on the U.S. troops holding the line in northwest Syria.

Meanwhile, there’s an airstrike spike in Iraq. U.S. and other coalition aircraft bombed an ISIS cave complex 152 times this month, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. “That’s more than any monthly airstrike total in Iraq and Syria since 2019,” reported Air Force Magazine. “According to the most recent information posted by OIR, there were a total of 25 strikes in both Iraq and Syria in December 2020.”

The strikes in the Qarachogh Mountain region west of Erbil destroyed “61 hideouts and 24 caves” and “pummel[led] 39 Daesh dwellings,” Marotto tweeted. A bit more, here.

“One estimate of ISIS strength put the number of fighters operating in Iraq and Syria at between 8,000 and 16,000, down from between 14,000 and as many as 18,000 in January 2020.” That’s from the Lead Inspector General’s fourth-quarter-2020 report.

From Defense One

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston with Kevin Baron. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. OTD2019: U.S.-backed forces take the ISIS redoubt at Baghouz, Syria, “formally ending the caliphate’s claim to any territory,” as a Wilson Center timeline puts it

In America, seven mass shootings in seven days. A gunman opened fire in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on Monday, killing 10 people, including one police officer. That capped a week that began with the three-site shooting spree in Atlanta. Between those two, mass shootings — defined by CNN as “a shooting incident which results in four or more casualties (dead or wounded) excluding the shooter(s)” — also occurred in Stockton, California; Gresham, Oregon; Houston; Dallas; and Philadelphia.

“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” came the oft-recycled headline from The Onion, which notes that “roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years” in the United States.  

DoD’ spotty COVID data. “A year since the Defense Department reported the first cases of COVID-19 within its community, researchers say the pandemic-related data released by the department has been incomplete and, in some cases, poorly explained,” writes Defense One’s Elizabeth Howe.

CSIS’ Adam Saxton, who has been tracking the data: “It is worth noting that they have been transparent when we contact them...But for example, when they say ‘the military,’ they don't necessarily say if it's Reserves or just active. And that changes your percentage numbers pretty significantly. That's a critical clarification that we’d like.”

The lack of data aside, CSIS’ Mark Cancian said DOD has held up “tremendously” against COVID-19 after a few “stutter steps” at the beginning of the pandemic. Read on, here.

Still, the pandemic continues to sideline warships and affect other units. The cruiser Philippine Sea just got underway again after a COVID outbreak left it pierside in Bahrain for three weeks. (UPI) And a spike in Okinawa has led Air Force and Marine Corps officials to forbid troops to dine indoors at off-base restaurants. (Stripes)

Three quick links on the future of fighting:

  • A Zumwalt-class destroyer will control armed drones and manned platforms in a wargame next month, when the “U.S. Pacific Fleet will host its most complex exercise to date involving unmanned systems,” USNI News reports.
  • The Marine Corps’ decision to retire its tanks and cut its artillery “are leading to an entirely new formation, the Marine littoral regiment, which will hold infantry, artillery, logistics and an anti-air battery,” reports Todd South for Marine Corps Times. “The moves are to enable small units of 75 Marines down to a squad-sized element to disperse themselves across vast distances but at key chokepoints to help the Navy knock out enemy ships.” Read on, here.
  • The Air Force and DARPA are moving on to more complex simulations of AI-controlled F-16s vs humans, The Drive reports.

U.S. faces a “terrible” modernization crunch, AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen argues in a new report. “Fleets of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and other equipment are reaching the end of their service lives, hitting the edge of their upgrade limits, and losing combat relevance,” write Eaglen and co-author Hallie Coyne. Now “the US military is facing a massive spending spike to pay for modernization bills across the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army that have been ignored, deferred, or inadequately considered.” 

The 102-page report aims to offer an “unvarnished overview of the existing modernization bill before the Pentagon today, forcing an

overdue confrontation with reality.” It traces recent and planned modernization spending in the four services, and concludes: “there are no magic wands to wave other than drastically downsizing US commitments and saddling American interests with an ever-burgeoning amount of risk.” Find the report, here.

Related: Nuclear battles on Capitol Hill. Defense News’ Joe Gould: “Alongside early fighting over the defense top line, which is expected to be flat in President Joe Biden’s budget proposal this spring, Democrats have offered bills and urged the president to cut programs like the nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, while Republicans are publicly pressing to continue programs that mostly began during the Obama administration.” Read that, here.

The GAO will review the Air Force’s decision to move Space Command HQ from Peterson AFB to Alabama. “Colorado officials criticized that decision — which came during the Trump administration’s final days — arguing that the final selection was political in nature. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., wrote a letter Feb. 1 to the GAO asking the watchdog to review the decision, and on March 19 GAO confirmed that it intends to do just that.” A bit more from C4ISRNet, here.

On Afghanistan: “In together, adapt together, and when the time is right, out together. That remains the guiding principle,” of decisions on troop levels there, said Secretary of State Tony Blinken, in Brussels on Tuesday for his first NATO foreign ministerial meeting. The top diplomat said he was there at Biden’s request to share the president’s thinking on that conflict, listen to allies’ opinions. It follows Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Kabul visit this weekend. Neither Biden Cabinet member is spilling the beans, but… 

Will the ‘forever war’ end? Said Blinken: “We are determined, as Jens said, that Afghanistan not again become a haven for terrorism.  So we will make sure that whatever we do, we’re able to carry out that mission.” 

NATO renewed? Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has practically fawned over Blinken and the incoming Biden administration, openly acknowledging the difficulties of recent years (Trump, Turkey, Macron…) and praising the arrival of Biden’s experienced diplomats and staunch NATO supporters. “I think we really now have a unique opportunity to strengthen our transatlantic bond to open a new chapter in the relationship between North America and Europe.” The meetings last through Wednesday.

Jared’s Mideast peace vs. Israel’s elections. Tuesday has brought the fourth election in two years for Prime Minister (for life?) Benjamin Netanyahu, who is sitting trial for corruption charges and rubbing Arab allies the wrong way, reports the New York Times. Much-ballyhooed good feelings with the United Arab Emirates seem to have faded as Netanyahu presents himself “as the only candidate who can protect Israel’s security and ensure its survival.” Bibi has been boasting that he got the Emiratis to invest billions in Israel. That hasn’t been well received. “The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” said presidential advisor Anwar Gargash. Oh, and Bibi’s relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah II is also “broken,” says Martin Indyk, a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Read, here.

Lastly today: “A National Guard convoy transporting doses of the COVID-19 vaccine was ambushed Monday morning in west Texas,” reports the Fort Worth Star Telegram. A seemingly “mentally disturbed” 66-year old man pulled his truck in front of the three Guard vehicles after trying to run them off the road, drew a .45-caliber pistol and demanded all 11 troops exit their vehicles and be searched. Police were called and detained Larry Lee Harris, who had another pistol and two additional loaded magazines with him. A bit more, here.