John Kerry announced this morning that the Syrian opposition will receive direct aid from the U.S. for the first time. CBS: "U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the Syrian Opposition Coalition was the "legitimate voice of the Syrian people," and for the first time will receive direct, non-lethal support from Washington. He warned that Syria's long-time dictator, President Bashar Assad, was an individual "out of time, and who must be out of power."
Sequester is but a day away. The inevitability of it all -- big cuts totaling $46 billion between now and October -- has beset the Pentagon as defense officials, including Chuck Hagel, scramble to figure out how to deal with it all. For months, there was no plan as the Obama administration assumed this manufactured crisis would never happen. But despite a big meeting at the White House tomorrow between President Barack Obama and top congressional leaders, it's increasingly likely sequestration will hit, especially now that the Hill has begun to see the Pentagon doomdayers as Chicken Littles, a significant development with long-term implications beyond Pentagon budget cuts. Nevertheless, from decreased carrier operations in the Gulf to fewer burials at Arlington, the military has begun to prepare for the worst. Some Pentagon officials liken the last few weeks to watching a car wreck happen in slow motion: you can see it happening and you have time to do something about it, but you can't. Hagel may have been sent to the Pentagon for a specific reason -- to oversee cuts to the military -- whether through sequestration or otherwise. As a former sergeant, he may be seen as the man with the credibility to cut fat and even, in some cases, the muscle, as needed.
At the all-hands meeting in the Pentagon auditorium yesterday, Hagel told defense employees: "If there's one thing America has stood for more than any one thing, is that we are a force for good. We make mistakes. We've made mistakes. We'll continue to make mistakes. But we are a force for good. And we should never, ever forget that, and we should always keep that out in front as much as any one thing that drives us every day. As difficult as our jobs are with the budget and sequestration -- I don't need to dwell on all the good news there -- that's a reality. We need to figure this out. You are doing that. You have been doing that. We need to deal with this reality."
Interesting: Politico this morning prints the e-mails between Bob Woodward and White House Economic Adviser Gene Sperling about "the orgins of sequester."
Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report, where we welcome the debut of a Dick Tracy "smartwatch" since it means we'd be notified every time our readers told us what's really happening -- or sent us candy. Follow me @glubold. Or hit me anytime at email@example.com. Sign up for Situation Report here or just shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you on the list. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings and whatnot.
The new Pentagon chief made a stop at the building's 9/11 memorial. The E-Ring's Kevin Baron reports that yesterday morning, Hagel's first day, he stopped by the memorial on the building's west side, where he remembered where he was on that day in 2001. "That was a ‘jarring gong,' that event," Hagel said during his remarks at the auditorium, invoking Winston Churchill, "that set in motion dynamics that we are living with today."
George Little is staying. Pentagon press secretary George Little will stay on as Chuck Hagel's spokesman and head of the Pentagon's massive press operation, at least for now, according to Kevin this morning. Baron: "Hagel began his tenure on Wednesday and the ex-senator arrived with few staffers in tow looking for top slots - including a spokesman. But Little and Hagel appear to have bonded well already, and plans remain on the table to expand the Pentagon press shop under Little's guidance as head of public affairs."
Hagel doesn't own a walnut farm. It's not clear where the new secretary of defense gets his R&R, but unlike his predecessor, Leon Panetta, Hagel doesn't own a walnut farm in California and won't be returning to it each weekend. Hagel lives in Northern Virginia, we're told. Hagel, who yesterday looked tanned, ready and rested, recently returned from an undisclosed "warm, sunny winter" destination with his family, we're told.
The ground services are so far beating their own targets when it comes to drawdown. The Army and Marine Corps are in the midst of drawing down their so-called end strength to get to a more appropriate force size in this "post-war" world. The Army, for example, is contracting from about 570,000 troops to about 490,000 by fiscal year 2017, and the Marines are decreasing from 202,100 to 182,100 by the end of fiscal 2016. So far, both services are doing better than they expected, voluntarily separating Marines and soldiers at a faster rate than their plans called for. The Corps, for example, is about 195,200 Marines strong, and is more than on target for reaching its goal at the end of this fiscal year of 193,500. In fact, the Corps may drop another 1,000 Marines below that goal, Situation Report is told. Likewise, the Army is ahead of track, losing personnel through normal attrition. It's current end-strength sits at about 541,000. But Congress has stipulated that no service can draw down much faster than its goals, dipping no less than .5 percent or Congress will send them a nasty-gram.
The Corps has a number of authorities and measures in place to use to achieve a successful drawdown, from temporary early retirement authority to time in grade waivers, all with the understanding that the Corps will maintain "faith" with its Marines, manpower officials tell Situation Report. The Army is achieving its draw down through normal attrition, but multiple sources have said it will take a new approach on drawing down since using only normal attrition as a way to reduce the force is considered an ineffective approach since it can allow good personnel to get out even when the Army wants to keep them.
By the way: The current Air Force end-strength is about 329,400, which represents a reduction of about 3,300 airmen from fiscal 2012. The Air Force hasn't been specific about what size it will be in the future, but has said it will be a smaller force. Only the Navy is growing -- the service's end-strength sits at 318,000 and must grow to 322,700 sailors by October 1.
But the big fear among the services: additional troop cuts. Although personnel costs dominate the service's budgets -- more than 60 percent for the Marine Corps and somewhat less for the Army -- few want to cut below the existing goals of 490,000 soldiers and 182,100 Marines. But depending on what happens with sequester or with other mandatory budget cuts, depending, they may have to. A report co-authored by former CNO Gary Roughead and Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake calls for a further reduction of the military's size, arguing in part that the Marine Corps could shrink by another 10,000 Marines. But Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, who heads the Marines' manpower division, said he doesn't see it. "There's no lack of opinion in this town, especially by former flag officers that are now wearing a suit," Milstead told the Marine Corps Times' Dan Lamothe after testifying on the Hill yesterday. "That's his opinion, and he's certainly entitled to it.... If someone really wants to say that it could be 10,000 less, show me the beef. Show me the beef. Where's the analysis?"
Farewell to Mike Evans of the Times of London. The reporter is returning to the U.K. after three years covering the Pentagon here in Washington. He classed up the joint -- we wish him well.
The Air Force went old school. The service just bought 20 propeller-driven attack planes, the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the first such planes the Air Force has bought in decades, Killer Apps' John Reed reports. But they're not for the Air Force, he tells us: "Why on Earth is the Air Force buying planes that strongly resemble World War II fighters equipped with modern bombs and cockpit displays? Because it plans on turning them over to the nascent Afghan air force to fight the Taliban. The logic goes like this: the Afghans don't need and certainly can't afford to buy, operate, and maintain modern jet fighters (some of which burn more fuel on takeoff than the Super Tucano would use in an hour). Instead, the Afghan military needs a simple, rugged plane that can carry lots of bullets and bombs and stay over targets for long periods of time."
- Fox opinion (Eaglen): Will Obama, Pentagon do the right thing on sequester?
- Wonkblog: Absent a deal, sequester must begin at 11:59pm tomorrow.
- AFP/Global Post: U.S. military may take over part of CIA drone war.
- NYT: $60 million in aid for Syria.
- Al-Monitor: No end in sight for Iraq oil dispute.
- Afghan Analysts Network: Controlling the uncontrolled: the NSC's decision on Wardak.
- Iran Primer: Iran talks: Is new momentum enough?
- Dawn: APC calls for immediate peace talks with Pakistani Taliban.
- Haaretz: What's troubling Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?