Today's D Brief: US strikes militias in Iraq, Syria; Afghanistan, cont.; the next pandemic; And a bit more.

The U.S. military hit a series of alleged small drone facilities across Iraq and Syria with airstrikes on Sunday evening. Two locations inside Syria and another in Iraq were hit in order to “disrupt and deter...unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the Pentagon said in a statement

Four militiamen were  allegedly killed in the strikes, the Associated Press reports, citing militia officials without specifying affiliations. The U.S. military alleges militiamen with Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada were among “several Iran-backed militia groups” that worked inside the buildings now destroyed. (According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, those two groups are closely linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.)

Background: “Since April, Iranian-backed militias have launched at least five drone attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Reuters reported on one of earliest of those, which occurred on April 14 in Erbil. The apparent uptick suggests the units “are turning to more sophisticated means of putting pressure on the American presence in the country,” according to U.S. officials. 

Iraq’s prime minister and military condemned the strikes in statements via their spokesmen. 

“Defensive precision airstrikes” on “operational and weapons storage facilities” is how the Pentagon described its actions in a statement from spokesman John Kirby. (The Pentagon also released three video clips of the strikes, which you can find here, here, and here.) 

Disrupt and deter trivia: “The last such strike was at the end of February,” Reuters’ Idrees Ali tweeted Sunday evening.

  • “Forever War Lite” is how Task & Purpose describes the strikes, with an accompanying graphic. 

Worth noting: At least two larger developments are unfolding as this militias-vs.-U.S. beef plays out: 

  1. The quest for a new “Iran deal,” since both Tehran and Washington are back on a diplomatic track that could lead to a nuclear monitoring deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program;
  2. The U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a remarkable note, really, and a fraught milestone that officials have said for weeks is possible as early as mid-July (see, e.g., New York Times from May 25 and Associated Press on June 24). 

One last thing about small drones: For at least the past year, CENTCOM’s Gen. Frank McKenzie has been sounding the alarm bells over the disruptive and dangerous threat from unmanned aerial systems and armed small drones—not that there are a whole lot of countermeasures widely available, as we’ve reviewed in our podcast as recently as this past October: 

  • “The UAS threat, the small drone threat, the quadcopter less than the arms length of a human being, is what really probably concerns me the most in the theater,” he told reporters April 22. “I would note, those things concern me greatly because our air defense system and our patriots and our other radars, they're very good at seeing the larger objects, be it ballistic missiles or be it larger land-attack cruise missiles or larger drones. The smaller drone is a problem, and [the] smaller drone is the future of warfare, and we need to get ahead of that right now.”
  • “I argue all the time with my Air Force friends that the future of flight is vertical and it's unmanned, and I believe we are seeing it now,” he said on June 10, 2020, at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “And I'm not talking about the large unmanned platforms which are the size of a conventional fighter jet that we can see and deal with as we would any other platform. I'm talking about one that you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars, you know a four-quad rotorcraft or something like that that can be launched and flown and with very simple modifications it can be made into something that can drop a weapon—a hand grenade or something else. Right now, the fact of the matter is we're on the wrong side of that equation.”

From Defense One

Afghanistan is ‘Not a Winnable War,’ White House Says as Taliban Storms Country // Jacqueline Feldscher: President Ghani leaves Washington empty handed, as Biden rejects Republican calls to reverse U.S. troop withdrawal.

Digital Authoritarianism is a National Security Threat, Pentagon Cyber Leader Says // Mila Jasper: The U.S. must fund the development of technology that can compete with the offerings of authoritarian countries, said Mieke Eoyang, deputy assistant defense secretary for cyber policy.

New Laws Are ‘Probably Needed’ to Force US Firms to Patch Known Cyber Vulnerabilities, NSA Official Says // Patrick Tucker: Too many firms are shying away from replacing old gear that is only getting easier for criminals to attack

The Army Brief // Caitlin M. Kenney: Plans for Afghan visa applications; Next-gen vaccine; Racism-teaching debate; and more...

We’re Not Ready for Another Pandemic // Olga Khazan, The Atlantic: The next big plague is coming, and despite making progress on pandemic preparedness, the U.S. might still suffer mass casualties. Here’s why.

Defense Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense Business Brief: In-person networking is back; Turkey builds largest wind tunnel; 3D printing advancements and more.

The Only Way We’ll Know When We Need COVID-19 Boosters // Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic: Research can tell us only so much. The rest is a waiting game.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. 

The Afghanistan conflict is “not a winnable war,” and the U.S. will continue withdrawing troops from the country, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday, the same day President Biden met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani.
One big reason this matters: Republicans had been pressing Biden to reverse course and stop the withdrawal, Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports.
As for Ghani, he said he respects America’s decision to withdraw and rejects any “false narratives of abandonment.” But he still painted a grim picture of the security situation in Afghanistan,” comparing it to 1861, when the Civil War began in the United States. “The then-young republic of the United States was under attack and unity, determination, and ensuring that an exclusionary agenda was not allowed—[this] is the type of moment for us,” Ghani told journalists. Read on, here

And finally today: Allegedly classified British documents were found in a “soggy heap” behind a bus station in Kent last Tuesday morning, the BBC reported this weekend.
There were at least two sets of documents recovered in the almost 50-page heap, and one batch concerned “the likely Russian reaction to [the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender’s] passage through Ukrainian waters off the Crimea coast.” (That event occurred one day after the documents were found.) The other bundle “detail[ed] plans for a possible UK military presence in Afghanistan after the US-led Nato operation there ends,” the BBC reports, and even shared photos of some of what was found.
Said the British military in a statement: “As the public would expect, the Ministry of Defence plans carefully.” Read on, here.