Today's D Brief: ‘Insane’ number of cross-border attacks; US hits Houthis, again; B-21 flies at Edwards; Some secrets get less secret; And a bit more.

Pakistan’s military says it attacked separatists inside Iran with missiles and drones on Thursday, less than two days after Iran attacked insurgents inside Pakistan with its own missiles and drones, allegedly killing at least two people, including children, earlier this week. Iranian state-run media said Thursday that Pakistan’s attacks killed at least nine people, including four children.

Iran’s Tuesday strikes targeted Baloch militants from the group Jaish al-Adl, which is a Sunni Muslim group based in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province as well as the western Pakistani province of Balochistan. The militants advocate on behalf of greater rights and recognition for ethnic minority Baluchis, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. But the group has attacked and ambushed Iranian security forces several times over the last few decades, including with suicide bombers, which led to the U.S. designating Jaish al-Adl as a foreign terrorist organization back in 2010. Iran, which is a predominantly Shia Muslim nation, executed the group’s leader the same year, but the organization still endures. 

Pakistan, too, attacked what it said were different Baloch militants on Thursday based at a village in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. “Hideouts used by terrorist organisations namely Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Liberation Front were successfully struck in an intelligence based operation [with the] code name 'Marg Bar Sarmachar',” Pakistan’s military said in a statement following the operation early Thursday. 

“The precision strikes were carried out using killer drones, rockets, loitering munitions and stand-off weapons,” Pakistani defense officials said. Pakistan’s army was considerably saltier in its post-strike statement, warning, “We note and warn that whoever extends his finger towards us will return to it only amputated, and whoever thinks of attacking us will return reprehensible and defeated.” 

Pakistan’s foreign ministry blamed Iran for inaction leading up to the Thursday strikes. “Pakistan also shared multiple dossiers with concrete evidence of the presence and activities of these terrorists,” Islamabad said in a separate statement Thursday. “However, because of lack of action on our serious concerns, these so-called Sarmachars continued to spill the blood of innocent Pakistanis with impunity,” the officials said, and emphasized they had received “credible intelligence of impending large scale terrorist activities,” which compelled Pakistan to attack. 

However, “Iran is a brotherly country and the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the Iranian people,” said Islamabad’s diplomatic office, adding, “We have always emphasized dialogue and cooperation in confronting common challenges including the menace of terrorism.” The military echoed that message in its statement, which concluded, “Going forward, dialogue and cooperation is deemed prudent in resolving bilateral issues between the two neighbouring brotherly countries.”

Tehran condemned the Thursday attacks, and summoned Pakistan’s ambassador for an explanation, according to a particularly short statement Thursday from Iran’s foreign ministry. 

  • Sidenote on Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: He claimed Wednesday in Davos that Iran has never supplied Russia with drones or missiles. Washington-based think tanker Jonathan Lord responded shortly afterward that the diplomat’s allegation is “Just an outright lie. I’ve held in my hands the remnants of [Iranian-made] Shahed drones that were taken off the field in Ukraine. The evidence of Iran’s lethal support to Russia’s illegal war is irrefutable,” he added, and linked to a recent public assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which you can find (PDF) here

Pakistan’s former military chief Khwaja Asif said he considered the Thursday strikes enough to both save face for Islamabad’s leaders, and to stop further escalation. “A measured response has been given and it was important,” he told Geo TV, according to Reuters. Next, he said, “There should be ongoing efforts on the side [so] that this doesn't escalate.”

An optimistic forecast: “My guess is [Iran] eases off, Pakistan refrains from another strike, and both sides jaw a bit more, but decide to let things be even-steven,” said U.S. Naval Academy historian W. W. S. Hsieh. “Remember [back in November 2015] when the Turks shot down a Russian Su-24? Usually cooler heads prevail after everyone's made their point,” he added. Coverage continues below the fold...

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1917, Nicholas Oresko was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. Oresko would later receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in Germany on January 23, 1945, when he single-handedly destroyed two German bunkers while wounded from machine gun fire.

“In the past week alone, the Middle East has seen an insane scale of cross-border conflict,” Charles Lister of the Washington-based Middle East Institute wrote on social media, and highlighted:

A second opinion: “These days,” said scholar Randa Slim, “the Middle East is too crazy, too unpredictable, too dangerous even for someone like me who lived during a bloody civil war and an Israeli invasion of Beirut.”

Has the U.S. “overlearned” lessons from the recent past in the Middle East? Perhaps, argued Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. He advocated in late December for U.S. strikes against Houthi capabilities, writing in Foreign Policy (emphasis added), “Critics will no doubt argue that this prescription risks ensnaring the United States in yet another open-ended conflict in the Middle East. Fair point, though the search for a risk-free policy is as close to a unicorn as one can get in foreign policy. Besides, disrupting or destroying the Houthis’ ability to disrupt shipping is hardly akin to the overambitious policies of the past aimed at regime change and remaking of societies. Rather, it’s a move to protect a vital national interest.” Read on, here. 

New: The U.S. military struck suspected Houthi missile sites again overnight, targeting “14 Iran-backed Houthi missiles that were loaded to be fired in Houthi controlled areas in Yemen,” according to defense officials at Central Command. That operation is the fourth of its kind since Friday—though the last three have been considerably smaller in scope than the initial barrage with the Brits late last week. 

Another preemptive self-defense strike: “These missiles on launch rails presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region and could have been fired at any time, prompting U.S. forces to exercise their inherent right and obligation to defend themselves,” CENTCOM said, echoing a similar justification for different preemptive strikes inside Yemen on Tuesday. 

Also new: The Houthis attacked another commercial ship late Wednesday, striking the U.S.-owned bulk carrier Genco Picardy with a kamikaze drone as the ship transited the Gulf of Aden. “There were no injuries and some damage reported,” but the ship was deemed “seaworthy” and continued on its way, according to CENTCOM. (You can see a few post-strike images here.)

However, the Indian navy says it rescued the 22-person crew of the Picardy, which included nine Indian nationals, according to Reuters. Read more about the effects of routing vessels away from the Red Sea and around southern Africa, which is “boosting demand for bunker fuel used by ships at far-flung ports,” here

Related reading: 

B-21 flight testing confirmed underway. The B-21 Raider bomber took its second officially confirmed flight on Wednesday from Edwards Air Force Base, California. D1’s Audrey Decker has a bit more, here.

Some secret military programs are getting a little less secret. It’s a rare thing for the Pentagon to allow some of its most secret programs to be classified at a lower level, but that’s what’s going to happen in the wake of a memo from DepSecDef Kathleen Hicks. 

The classified memo, which was signed at the end of 2023, “completely rewrites” internal guidance that was decades old, John Plumb, the Pentagon’s top space policy official, told reporters Wednesday.

The new guidance covers all levels of secrecy, including unclassified, and acknowledges “vast changes in publicly available information on space and space programs since the last classification guidance,” a DOD spokesperson told Defense One via email. Lauren William has more, here.