Today's D Brief: Warning shots in the Gulf; SEALs reorganize; Kendall tapped as SecAF; New civilian cyber corps?; And a bit more.

The U.S. Navy fired warning shots in the northern Persian Gulf on Monday night after Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “armed speed boats rapidly approached” two U.S. ships at what the Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet called “an unnecessarily close range with unknown intent.” That range was about 68 yards, or nearly 200 feet. 

Involved: U.S. Navy patrol coastal ship USS Firebolt (PC 10) and U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranof (WPB 1318). 

What happened: Iran’s vessels approached the two U.S. ships quickly at about 8 p.m. local time. According to the Fifth Fleet, “The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the IRGCN vessels continued their close range maneuvers. The crew of Firebolt then fired warning shots, and the IRGCN vessels moved away to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels.” 

See for yourself: Watch a 17-second video of black and white night footage showing a fired tracer round for that warning shot on DVIDS, here.

About that dangerous proximity, the Associated Press notes that “While 100 meters may seem far to someone standing at a distance, it’s incredibly close for large warships that have difficulty in turning quickly, like aircraft carriers. Even smaller vessels can collide with each other at sea, risking the ships.”

If this episode sounds familiar, the New York Times reports that’s probably because Monday’s incident is “the second time in a month that Iran has carried out harassing maneuvers against Navy or Coast Guard ships in the region, after a year of relative maritime peace.”

The other known naval harassment incident this month lasted three hours and involved four Iranian vessels — the IRGCN’s Harth 55, along with three fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft, according to a different U.S. Navy news release Tuesday. However, this particular episode happened 26 days ago. Watch 20 seconds of that via a video from Fifth Fleet, here.

This is all happening, of course, amid a wider context of warming U.S.-Iranian ties under President Joe Biden. “It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility,” AP writes. The Times adds that Monday’s incident occurred “after a leaked audiotape offered a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders. In the recording, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps called the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring diplomatic advice.”

A note on rhetoric. Here’s an interesting final paragraph from the Fifth Fleet’s press release on Monday’s incident: “The U.S. is not an aggressor; our naval forces remain postured in a non-provocative manner that exemplifies professionalism, incentivizes adherence to international law and customs, and persuades others to emulate our actions. Our forces are trained, however, to conduct effective defensive measures when necessary.”

Important regional development: The Saudis have changed their tone when it comes to their open hostility toward Iran, according to an interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Here’s the relevant passage, in full: 

“At the end of the day, Iran is a neighboring country. All what we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world. The problem that we have lies with certain negative behaviors they have, whether in terms of their nuclear program, their support of illegal militias in some countries in the region, or their ballistic missile program. We are working now with our partners in the region and the world to find solutions for these problems. We really hope we would overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all parties.”

And what about the future of Riyadh’s war in Yemen? MBS says he’s waiting on the Houthis to accept the Saudis’ terms for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the conflict will grind on. Here’s MBS: “No country would accept to have militias at their borders, or an armed group that operates outside of the law at its borders, this is not acceptable, neither for Saudi Arabia nor for the countries of the region, and it’s also unacceptable in Yemen. We have seen the repercussions of this on Yemen. We really hope that the Houthis will sit with all other Yemeni parties at the negotiations table to reach solutions that guarantee everyone’s rights, and to also safeguard the interests of all the countries in the region. We still have our offer open to ceasefire and provide economic support and everything they need as long as Houthis agree to a ceasefire and sitting on the negotiating table.” Read the rest at ArabNews.com, here.

BTW: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met his Israeli counterpart Tuesday in Washington. Sullivan and Meir Ben-Shabbat “discussed their serious concerns about advancements in Iran’s nuclear program” and Sullivan's team “underscored President Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” according to a statement from the White House.

Related reading:Israel and Iran Are Pulling the United States Toward Conflict,” a trio of veteran diplomats and State Department officials — Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon — warn in the pages of Foreign Affairs

TLDR excerpt: “With no brakes on its policy, Israel is likely to continue assassinations, cyberattacks, and bombings in order to hobble the Iranian program, frustrate U.S. efforts to reenter the nuclear deal, and dissuade Iranian authorities from returning to compliance. Israel will also continue to ramp up its military capability,” Kurtzer, Miller and Simon write, noting, “the near-term consequences of a political confrontation with Israel and muscular diplomacy with Iran will be more manageable than the consequences of a war within the next two years.” More behind the paywall at Foreign Affairs, here.


From Defense One

Biden Taps Frank Kendall To Be Air Force Secretary // Marcus Weisgerber and Tara Copp: Former Pentagon acquisition chief has relevant experience defining threats and modernization needs, colleagues say.

Biden Must Protect Women’s Rights After Afghanistan Withdrawal, Say Lawmakers // Jacqueline Feldscher: U.S. envoy says diplomats can handle the issue.

Defense One Radio, Ep. 90: The future of Afghanistan // Defense One Staff , Government Executive: Ben Watson talks with Greg, a Green Beret medic who served in Afghanistan, and with Long War Journal's Bill Roggio.

No ICBMs? Big Problems // Matthew R. Costlow: We must dispel the unfounded fears of false alarms, place the cost in context, and seriously consider the unpleasant consequences of eliminating ICBMs from the U.S. nuclear force.

DHS Tries to Root Out 'Domestic Violent Extremism' In Its Ranks // Eric Katz, Government Executive: Department will work "with urgency and focus to address" insider threats, secretary says.

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 1944, 743 Americans died when German fast-attack boats attacked a secret rehearsal for the D-Day landings.


A window into the future of the SEALs. Ten years after killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the U.S. Navy SEALs are undergoing a quiet transformation, AP’s Lita Baldor reports after an interview with Navy Rear Adm. H. Wyman Howard III, who commands America’s Naval Special Warfare Command.
What’s new: A 30% drop in platoons, with those forces redistributed to existing units. These changes will make SEAL teams larger and, according to Baldor, “more lethal and able to counter sophisticated maritime and undersea adversaries.”
The screening process will also be updated, “with more psychological assessments to evaluate personality traits.” Continue reading here

The Afghan military is worried about low ammunition and less air support if the U.S. sticks to its Sept. 11 withdrawal date, the New York Times reports, describing Kabul’s force as “troubled” and “woefully unprepared for facing the Taliban, or any other threat, on their own.”
Some notable excerpts (emphasis added):

  • “Roughly 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed since 2001...”
  • “On paper, the Afghan security forces have more than 300,000 troops, but the actual figure is likely significantly less.”
  • “By conservative estimates, at least 287 security force members are killed and 185 wounded per month in roadside and suicide bombings, ambushes, fire fights, insider killings and assassinations, according to The Times’ casualty report data.”
  • “The United States has poured more than $70 billion in weapons, equipment and training into the Afghan forces. But from the look of many units, it is unclear where the money went.”

Said Afghanistan's acting military chief, Gen. Yasin Zia: “We will find a way to survive.” Continue reading at the Times, here.
From the region: Pakistani officials are trying to pressure the Taliban into returning to peace talks, regional journalist Hamid Mir reports

France appears to have just tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Read over the associated navigation warnings to pilots and captains, via The Drive reporting on Monday, here.

A new bipartisan effort on the Hill could create a sort of National Guard for cyber incidents, the Washington Post reports.  
It’s being called the “Civilian Cybersecurity Reserve,” and teams would be created for both the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Post. Draft legislation currently calls for the team to eventually be staffed on a voluntary and invitation-only basis. “Applicants would need prior federal government or military service.” Staffing numbers have not yet been worked out. Not much more is known yet; but you can read more at the Post, here.
By the way, cyber criminals claim to have stolen sensitive data from the Washington, D.C., police department, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
One more thing: “So far this year, 26 government agencies in the U.S. have been hit by ransomware, with cybercriminals releasing online data stolen from 16 of them,” a ransomware analyst told AP. Read on, here.
ICYMI: “The US Needs a Cybersecurity Civilian Corps,” wrote New America’s Natasha Cohen and Peter Singer in 2018. “Like the auxiliaries that arose during WWII, a new volunteer organization will help face today’s threats.” Read that, here.

Tonight: Biden’s first State of the Union. The president will deliver his address to a joint session of Congress starting around 9 p.m. ET. Catch the livestream on YouTube, here. AP previews the themes to watch, here.

Key nominee gets the gig. The Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian policy job, defense undersecretary for policy, has now been filled after Colin Kahl advanced Tuesday in a 49-45 vote in the Senate. CNN has more on the procedures allowing Kahl to skip what seemed like another tiebreaker vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, here.
Here’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Kahl: “I am grateful to the Senate for confirming Dr. Colin Kahl to serve as the next Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Dr. Kahl’s vast experience within the Department’s Policy office, at the White House, as well as his work with think tanks and academia, make him uniquely qualified for this position. He is the right person to head up the Policy team as we work to address the national security challenges presented by our number one pacing challenge — China, and to effectively deter nation-state threats from Russia, Iran and North Korea, while disrupting terrorist threats to our homeland emanating from various locations around the globe. I thank Dr. Kahl for his continued commitment to public service and I look forward to working together.”
Coming up: Austin heads to Colorado, Hawaii and Nebraska beginning Thursday. Stops include U.S. Space Command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. Strategic Command, the Pentagon announced in a statement Tuesday.
During that trip, Indo-PACOM will get a new commander when outgoing Navy Adm. Phillip Davidson passes the colors to Adm. John Aquilino.

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