Today's D Brief: Yemen on the Hill; Vice chiefs’ acquisition crusade; Nuclear fears, shifting; Satcom jamming; And a bit more.
The future of Yemen is one of several pressing security issues being considered today before the House and Senate’s Foreign Relations Committees. The White House’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, began testifying this morning before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at 10 a.m. ET; he’ll head over to the Senate side later this afternoon at 2 p.m. And that will be immediately followed by a panel discussion with officials from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the International Rescue Committee.
One place inside Yemen getting a lot of attention: Marib, where the Iran-backed Houthis have been sending troops and equipment and the Saudi air force has escalated its air campaign in recent weeks. Marib hosts some 4 million displaced Yemenis, and “One in four families have no access to toilets, showers, or hand-washing facilities near their shelters,” the UN’s refugee agency said Tuesday.
ICYMI: “We must be clear about who is frustrating UN efforts” in Yemen, Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward said last week at the international assembly in New York. And that chief “frustrator” is the Houthis, based in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a.
Who’s counting: The Houthis have attacked Saudi positions with drone and missile attacks more than 900 times, according to Yemen-watcher Elisabeth Kendall, tweeting late last week. And just since the start of the year, “Iranian-aided Houthi forces have launched more than 150 ballistic missile, [cruise missile], and [drone] attacks against military, infrastructure, and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia,” the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, told lawmakers today.
More than 233,000 people have died in fighting across Yemen since the Saudis began attacking in March 2015, and some 20 million are struggling to find enough to eat, the Associated Press reported last week, citing UN stats.
BTW: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still producing new videos for its sympathizers, Kendall noticed on Monday, and elaborated a bit on it, here.
On the bright side, there could be a local, “bottom-up” path toward greater stability for Yemen, write regional analysts Adam Baron and Monder Basalma, using the surprisingly cohesive and oil-rich Hadhramaut province as a kind of case study.
From Defense One
Free the Data: Vice Chiefs Launch Crusade to Fix a Key Acquisition Problem // Patrick Tucker: Better access to weapon data is crucial to faster Pentagon purchasing — and dangerous to industry business models.
US Nuclear Fears Are Shifting From a Clear Russian Threat to a Murkier Chinese One // Patrick Tucker: Bejing might use nukes to coerce U.S. leaders in a crisis, STRATCOM chief tells lawmakers.
Countering China’s Military Challenge, Today // Eric Sayers and Abraham Denmark: Denying the PLA its objectives in the 2020s requires diversification, distribution, and resiliency across posture and mission.
Germany’s Military an Unexpected Star in Pandemic Relief // Elisabeth Braw: The Bundeswehr’s ubiquity and effectiveness in various facets of the COVID response has created an unusual problem.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1985 and after a two-day siege by the FBI, the white supremacist militant group The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord surrendered to federal authorities in Arkansas. Two years earlier, the group published a manifesto declaring war on the U.S. government, the same year one of its members bombed a natural gas pipeline with dynamite. Most who were arrested on this day were later hit with an array of charges related to illegal weapons possession including, e.g., tank rounds and silencers.
America's vice chiefs’ have a new acquisition plan. The U.S. military’s sophisticated jets, drones, combat vehicles, satellites, and other gear produce data that the Defense Department can’t access, use, or share in the way that it wants to, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports. And so Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the services’ vice chiefs are looking to change that. In May, they intend to release a set of mandates that they hope will reshape how defense contractors produce things for the U.S. military, Tucker writes off a recent trip with Hyten.
Why it matters: When data is held by companies or even just produced in a non-sharable format, it slows acquisition down and costs the Pentagon money. Sharing is also key to far nimble procurement and even for building AI tools that commanders can trust. Read on, here.
America’s top military officer for Africa goes behind closed doors today to discuss the outlook and operations for U.S. Africa Command. Here’s some of what Army Gen. Stephen Townsend will say, according to his opening statement (PDF):
Extremist groups “like al Qaeda and ISIS, are expanding in Africa at a rapid pace, taking advantage of weak governance and disenfranchised populations.” Indeed, “Fourteen of the world’s top twenty most fragile states are in the USAFRICOM Area of Responsibility,” Townsend said.
And the Somalia-based extremists of al-Shabaab? Townsend calls them the “largest, wealthiest, and most violent Al Qaeda-associated group in the world,” and “the primary African [violent extremist] threat to American interests.” You may recall the U.S. military withdrew its assets from Somalia last year on POTUS45’s orders.
When it comes to COVID-19, the U.S. military has come to the aid of 43 different nations across Africa, “including the delivery of nearly $500 [million] in medical supplies”;
On China’s rising profile, Townsend said, “The People’s Republic of China has 52 embassies in Africa, three more than the U.S., and they continue to expand their base in Djibouti into a platform to project power across the continent and its waters—completing a large naval pier this year.”
Russian private military companies get a call-out, too; in this instance for being “a destabilizing influence in Africa, frequently securing Russian investments at the expense of African interests,” including in places like “the Central African Republic, where they are employing PMCs, extracting minerals, and buying influence,” according to Townsend.
CENTCOM’s Gen. Frank McKenzie goes behind closed doors this afternoon as well. House appropriators will hear his take on the U.S. military’s posture across the Middle East beginning at 2 p.m. Here’s some of what he’ll say today:
“For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority,” and it’s entirely because of unmanned aerial systems — largely because of the alleged work of Iran supporting groups like the Houthis in Yemen — according to McKenzie. His recommendation? “Until we are able to develop and field a networked capability to detect and defeat UAS, the advantage will remain with the attacker.”
Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria "likely conducted more than 50 [IED] attacks" on coalition convoys since the start of the year. Those same militias have also attacked coalition bases or U.S. facilities at least nine times since January.
“More than 20 million displaced people are spread across the USCENTCOM AOR, representing one fourth of the nearly 80 million people displaced globally… Meanwhile, the underlying socio-economic factors that sparked the ‘Arab Spring’ movements in 2011 persist and contribute to recurring unrest.”
And in case there was any uncertainty, “ISIS remains a learning, adaptive, and committed [violent extremist organization] with a dedicated core,” McKenzie says.
Question of the week: What about the future of Afghanistan? “We have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on U.S. troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response,” McKenzie says in his opening statement today, though he does not go into great detail.
He did, however, provide an answer to one very key question about America’s likely future involvement in Afghanistan during Tuesday questioning before HASC lawmakers: How can the U.S. carry out counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan, should surveillance footage reveal a legitimate target? “It’s going to be extremely difficult to do, but it is not impossible,” McKenzie said Tuesday. “The intelligence will decline; but we’re going to be able to continue to look into Afghanistan,” he promised. Read more on this topic at the New York Times, here.
One big problem for all of CENTCOM: “Adversary jamming of our commercial satellite communications.” That challenge calls for the U.S. to develop “a cryptographic modernization plan,” according to McKenzie.
In terms of COVID-19, at least 20 different exercises with the U.S. and its allies have been cancelled because of the ongoing pandemic.
And the Russia and China (i.e. “strategic competition”) question? "China and Russia each seek ends in their own self-interest using different approaches," McKenzie says. "Russia plays the part of spoiler to the U.S., using military means, influence operations and grey-zone activities to undermine and disrupt U.S. influence and reassert its own global influence.” McKenzie later calls Russia’s actions in the Middle East “largely opportunistic and transactional.” China, on the other hand, “uses predominantly economic means to establish regional in-roads, with a long-term goal of expanding its military presence to secure vital routes of energy and trade.”
New bipartisan legislation designed to help the U.S. counter China will be discussed this morning at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democratic Chairman Bob Menendez described it two weeks ago as “the first major proposal to bring Democrats and Republicans together in laying out a strategic approach towards Beijing – and assuring that the United States is positioned to compete with China across all dimensions of national and international power for decades to come.”
Among other things, the bill “requires reporting on Chinese ballistic, hypersonic glide, and cruise missiles, conventional forces, nuclear, space, cyberspace and other strategic domains.” Read more from Menendez’s office, here.
The SFRC will also be discussing an aide package to Ukraine, which would authorize “up to $300 million per year of foreign military financing to Ukraine...including the authority to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance.” More here.
“Algorithms and Amplification” is the focus of a Senate Judiciary hearing that began at 10 a.m. ET. (Livestream it here.)
By the way: Parler, the social media app beloved by Trump devotees, is returning to the Apple store after a several-months hiatus following the Jan. 6 insurrection. Read more from Colorado GOP Rep. Ken Buck, who tweeted about the update on Monday here.
Apple had insisted Parler change its content-moderation policies. The social media company's interim CEO Mark Meckler said in a statement this week “systems that will better detect unlawful speech and allow users to filter content” have been added. He also said the company has maintained “our strict prohibition against content moderation based on viewpoint,” amid the changes Apple required. Read more at the Washington Post, here.
Does the U.S. have enough cyber professionals in its military? That’s one consideration the Senate Armed Services Committee will take up with a three-star general and three acting Pentagon officials at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon.
At the same time, Army, Navy, Air Force and DARPA officials are slated to review “technology maturation, and technology transition activities” with lawmakers of SASC’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats.
Also: Biden’s pick to run NASA, former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, testifies today before the Senate’s Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee. That started at 10 a.m. here.
And finally, nukes and America’s nuclear strategy go under the microscope this afternoon when Strategic Command’s Adm. Charles Richard and Space Command’s Gen. James Dickinson testify before HASC’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. That begins at 4 p.m. here.