National Security

The SecDef’s adjunct advisers; Hagel, the WH point man for making news on Syria; Chuck Yeager, no fan of the F-35; Philip Hammond sits down with FP; and a little bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

A KC-135 military jet has crashed this morning. An Air Force tanker aircraft crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan today, with a crew of three. The plane and crew, assigned to the Transit Center at Manas near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, had taken off from Manas Friday and crashed soon after. Manas is used routinely as a logistics hub for getting troops and materiel into and out of Afghanistan. The crash comes on the heels of a cargo jet that nosedived into the ground after taking off from Bagram air base. Investigators are still sifting through the cause of the crash of that jet, a civilian cargo plane. But a Pentagon official told Situation Report that there was no indication that plane had been shot down by insurgents on the ground.

Hagel holds close an informal group of adjunct advisers. Not long after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived at the Pentagon, he asked aides to convene a meeting of top veterans and military organizations as well as other defense-focused non-profit groups A few weeks later, on March 21, a group of individuals from 26 different organizations assembled in the Pentagon's E-Ring for a two-day roundtable for briefings Hagel and other officials regarding military operations, the defense budget and sequestration. They also discussed personnel issues like sexual assault prevention, tuition assistance, military community and family policy programs, and suicide prevention and military health system programs. That was the beginning of what is a growing relationship between Hagel, his staff, and a number of these outside groups. Now that informal advisory group has become the go-to for Hagel and his aides. It is convened regularly, typically by conference call. Since February, there have been nine such phone calls or meetings.

Hagel will confront a lot of "people issues." Although the group is weighted heavily toward veterans organizations, like the VFW and IAVA -- a reflection of Hagel's interest in veterans issues -- it also includes military support organizations, like the Air Force Association or the Navy or Marine Corps leagues. Topics of the conference calls, sometimes coordinated at the last minute before a major announcement, run the gamut from the Defense of Marriage Act to the presence of carriers in the CENTCOM region to Hagel's meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. "He's not doing this because he is a nice guy, but I think he knows that on his watch there will be and he will have to resolve a lot of people-related issues," one regular participant who asked not to be identified told Situation Report. "To his credit, he wants to engage a variety of veterans and military support organizations.... He is grounding himself in the right way." The group learns how the secretary is thinking, and the secretary and his staff use the feedback they receive privately to see how an issue may play in public. Participants who spoke to Situation Report say such a group can help the secretary avoid the kind of sand trap that the controversial drone medal landed in under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's watch. "It gives us a heads-up," Drew Davis, a retired Marine two-star who now serves as the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association. The group had been first organized under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, but has been invigorated by the number of times Hagel has called on it. Davis participated in the March 21 meeting after Hagel first arrived and a number of the subsequent conference calls since. "It makes the [military support organizations and the veterans service organizations] actually feel like they are more connected to the decision-making process rather than just have their advocacy happen up on the Hill," he told Situation Report. "Having it at the secretary level is something that is new and great. It makes us feel as if we actually have input."

Vegas rules. The individuals are asked to keep the content of the discussions private, but unlike former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who demanded his own uniformed officers sign non-disclosure agreements on budgetary and other issues, the group abides by a gentleman's agreement not to talk publicly about the deliberations in the room or on the calls. One participant says the discussions so far have not been heated but not without their disagreements. "It's been very cordial, but there have been discussions where it's not all of one mind and one view."

Top aides coordinate the meetings. Pentagon press secretary George Little and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright were directed to set up the first meeting; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Community and Community Outreach Rene Bardorf and Little now organize the sessions on an as-needed basis. Key players also include Lt. Gen. Curtis "Scap" Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, and Mike McCord, deputy comptroller, who gets involved in budget-related issues in particular.

This is the kind of thing such meetings produce: The discussions the group had about the controversial Distinguished Warfare Medal contributed to Hagel's decision on the matter. Some members told Hagel the idea of the drone medal was "insane" and that it should be downgraded; others spoke of the importance of recognizing an emerging type of warfare. In the end, Hagel eliminated it altogether. Then AMVETS, which is represented in the group, posted a story on their site heralding the decision: "AmVets applauds Secretary Hagel's Medal Decision." (That story here.) Members of the group who spoke with Situation Report give credit to Hagel for this kind of outreach. But their independence is still important, and group members don't see this as a way to be co-opted by Hagel or his staff, either. "I'm not drinking his Kool-Aid," said one.

Who's in Hagel's inner (outer) circle? Representatives from more than 25 groups attended the March 21 meeting at the Pentagon, and a dozen or more of them participate in some of the many conference calls Hagel or his staff have directed. The groups include: The Air Force Association, the Association of the United States Army, the Marine Corps League, the Military Officers Association of America, the Navy League, the Reserve Officers Association, the American Legion, AMVETS, Armed Services YMCW, Blue Star Families, Disabled American Veterans, Fisher House, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Guard Association of the United States, the National Military Family Association, Operation Homefront, Student Veterans of America, Transition Assistance Program for Survivors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring our Heroes Program, the USO, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a 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 military stories of success or excess.

ICYMI (we did): Chuck Yeager, fighter ace, first person to break the sound barrier, first to fly faster than Mach II and fisherman, on the Tweeters recently: "I was asked my opinion about the F-35. It's a waste of money. Far too expensive. Give me an F-15 E"

Hagel acknowledges that arming the opposition in Syria is an option. At a joint presser with U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday, Hagel cautiously acknowledged the administration is considering arming rebels in Syria. He has become the newsmaker on Syria: At the end of his swing through the Middle East, he was the first administration official to acknowledge publicly the limited use of chemical weapons there. Yesterday, he was the first administration official to say publicly that the White House was considering arming the rebels.

Hagel: "Well, first, as to your question regarding rethinking options."

CNN's Barbara Starr: "Rethinking arming the rebels, sir."

Hagel: "Arming the rebels. That's an option. That's an option. I think Secretary Hammond framed it rather clearly when he talked about what is the objective for both our countries, certainly the United States. Stopping the violence; stability in the region, and a transitioning -- helping be part of that transitioning Syria to a democracy. Now, those are objectives. You're always, any country, any power, any international coalition in partnership is going to continue to look at options, how best to accomplish those objectives. This is not a static situation. A lot of players are involved. And so we must continue to look at options and present those options based on all contingencies, with the focus that we all have, I think, in the international community to achieve the objectives the best way we can. So we're constantly evaluating. I think the president noted it a couple of days ago in his press conference, talking about rethinking options. Of course we do." 

Starr: "So you are rethinking -- the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels?"

Hagel: "Yes."

Starr: "And may I ask why? What has changed in your mind? And does this put you respectfully at odds with the U.S. military, General Dempsey, who said it's not a good idea in his view? Why are you rethinking arming the rebels?"

Hagel: "You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will. These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives. We have a responsibility -- and I think General Dempsey would say the same thing -- to continue to evaluate options. It doesn't mean that the -- the president has decided on anything. But..."

Starr: "Are you in favor of arming the rebels now?"

Hagel: "I'm in favor of exploring options and see what the is -- is the best option in coordination with our international partners. 

Starr: "Have you come to a conclusion yet?"

Hagel: "No." 

Full transcript, here.

New and improved: the Pentagon, meanwhile, is boosting its bunker buster bomb, to combat Iran. The WSJ's Adam Entous and Julian Barnes report this morning that the U.S. military has redesigned its biggest "bunker buster" bomb with new features that will enable it to "destroy Iran's most heavily fortified and defended nuclear site," saying it will show Israel the U.S. has the ability to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb if diplomacy fails - and also that Israel's military can't do it on its own. "Several times in recent weeks, American officials, seeking to demonstrate U.S. capabilities, showed Israeli military and civilian leaders secret Air Force video of an earlier version of the bomb hitting its target in high-altitude testing, and explained what had been done to improve it, according to diplomats who were present. In the video, the weapon can be seen penetrating the ground within inches of its target, followed by a large underground detonation, according to people who have seen the footage."

Politics, vetting and other problems are preventing the administration from filling key posts at the Pentagon and at State. The NYT today writes about why the Obama administration seems to have so many issues filling key jobs across government, including the Pentagon and State. It's a problem that is causing widespread frustration. The White House in part blames Congress, and Congress, for its part? Well, it blames the White House.

"But members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct time-consuming background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation. People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama's White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal."

Situation Report wrote on this issue April 25.

The Cable's Josh Rogin wrote on this issue April 2.  

The E-Ring's Kevin Baron sat down with Hammond. Hammond spoke with Baron about the U.K.'s defense priorities and challenges amid shrinking military budgets. Hammond also discussed the threats along NATO's Middle Eastern and North African boundaries, and its role in collective security post Afghanistan. Baron: "In 2010, nearly 20 percent of the British army was still in Germany, manning heavy armor against a Cold War threat from the Soviet Union. Today, the United Kingdom wants to build a more affordable, yet shared defense. That requires Hammond to convince European NATO partners to do more while convincing the Pentagon to treat its allies more as partners in collective security, rather than as add-ons to its missions." A full transcript of their conversation, here.

Speaking of the British -  Defense News reports today that Andrew Tyler, the British Defense Ministry's former procurement chief, has just landed at Northrop Grumman as the chief executive of the company's U.K. and European operations. "Tyler moves to Northrop Grumman from energy company Siemens' Marine Current Turbines unit, but he is best known here as the chief operating officer of MoD's Defence Equipment & Support organization," the paper writes.

 

The Pivot

  • Danger Room: Pentagon warns North Korea could become a hacker haven.
  • Military Times: DOD report: North Korea moving toward nuke missile.
  • CBS: U.S. to North Korea: release American prisoner.
  • South China Morning Post: Ex-PLA soldier and lover jailed for theft, laundering.
  • AP: China emerging as new force in drone warfare, say analysts.

Noting

  • Duffel Blog: SM Chandler: You know what? Screw it, everyone's going to wear three reflective belts at all times.
  • The Atlantic: Why America gets a B+ in counterterrorism. 
  • Battleland: 1000. The number of flights flown by the AF's oldest F-22. 

Syria

  • BBC: Little international support for arming Syria rebels. 
  • Reuters: Taking sides in Syria a harder choice for Israel.
  • WaPo (blog): Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria to resign.

 

National Security

Furlough decision soon; What the assassination of a general in Syria tells us about Iranian influence; Could the Onion goad the WH?; Lippert’s first day as Hagel’s right hand man; Bruce Butler to the Navy League, and a little bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

On furloughs, a decision soon. Pentagon press secretary George Little yesterday again acknowledged that each of the services were confronting a different math problem and that some services didn't need to furlough their civilian workers while other did have to. "To be totally straightforward, the math does work for some services to avoid some furloughs, at a minimum... For other services, it is harder." Regardless, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants a "one team" approach and the Navy (and Marine Corps) which doesn't need to furlough workers to balance their budget in the same way as the Army does, will essentially have to take one for the team. It's "one team, one fight," Little said. A decision on furloughs and how many days DOD civilian workers will be forced on unpaid leave, is pending but is expected soon. Situation Report was the first to report on the Navy and Marines' not needing to furlough their civilian employees April 11. Read that here.

Yesterday was day one for Mark Lippert. The special assistant, or TSA, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reported for duty yesterday. He was welcomed to the front office by the boss at the senior staff meeting, where Hagel also thanked Marcel Lettre, who had served as acting TSA since Hagel arrived. We've been told Lettre is expected to continue to serve at the Pentagon in a senior job that will be announced in the "near future." Lippert, as Hagel, has a full plate, from managing the strategic assessment, to Syria and North Korea. But as the elbows grow sharper inside the building and the services push for their share of a smaller pie, Lippert's biggest job may be to help his boss herd the cats - and keep the peace.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of Situation Report where we take quiet note of the two-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for defining, animating, and driving so much of the way our readers still look at the national security environment today. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a 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 military stories of success or excess.

Iran's influence on Syria is "extensive and expensive:" Out this morning is a new, joint report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War that deepens our understanding of the role Iran is playing in Syria. It says Iran has conducted an "extensive, expensive and integrated effort" to keep the Assad regime in power and in return is laying the groundwork to retain Syrian territory to pursue its interests in the region if and when Assad falls. According to the report, provided to Situation Report in advance of its publication this morning, the Iranian security and intelligence services' assistance to the Syrian military have evolved "into an expeditionary training mission using Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services, and law enforcement forces." The deployment of the IRGC "is a notable expansion of Iran's willingness and ability to project military force beyond its borders," says the report, written by Will Fulton, Joe Holliday and Sam Wyer, and titled simply "Iranian Strategy in Syria."

But the report's analysis digs into the significance of the assassination of Iranian Brig. Gen. Hassan Shateri, killed in Damascus while traveling to Beirut in February after having travelled to Aleppo. Shateri was a senior Quds Force commander who had been operating covertly in Lebanon in 2006 - and had also worked in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report concludes: "Western media has missed the significance of Shateri's assassination. Reporting on his death highlights his activities in Lebanon, both because he was assigned there most recently and because of the location and manner of his death. But Shateri was not simply a supporter of and rebuilder of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rather, Shateri was a senior, covert Quds Force operative whose assignments ranged from the Hindu Kush through Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. His involvement in the Syrian conflict is further indication of the depth of Iran's commitment to its interests in Syria and the grand strategic importance it places upon that conflict. Shateri's presence in Syria also raises broader questions about how Syria fits into Iran's global force projection strategy. A forthcoming paper published by AEI's Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War will address the depth of Iranian involvement in Syria and the implications of the difficulties the Syrian regime is facing for Iranian regional and global strategy." Read the full report here.

The Onion is covering Syria, darkly. As the U.S. assesses intelligence on chemical weapons use in Syria and the first shipments of food and medical supplies to the opposition arrive, the Onion's coverage of the conflict and the American response is some of the most biting out there. The latest piece on the parody site is headlined "‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,' Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed." "Reported" out of Homs: "As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians." Said the man: "Even if I do not survive, at least I can die knowing that someone is currently stepping in to prevent any more grotesque and inhumane loss of innocent life. After all, the international community fully recognizes that anything less than decisive action would be completely immoral and unconscionable."

But this is for real: Assad's forces in Syria are said this morning to be pushing farther north to crush the resistance in Homs. From the NYT: "The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and draws its information from activists in Syria, said loyalist forces on Thursday had regained control of the strategically placed Wadi Sayeh district in the center of Homs. Rebel forces have controlled parts of Homs, Syria's third biggest city, for more than a year. The fighting in there has ranked among the bloodiest since the conflict began about two years ago. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed."

Meanwhile, AFP announced new security guidelines for its journalists covering Syria. A memo from Agence France-Presse explains that the agency is "reinforcing its procedures" for covering the conflict. "Conditions inside the country are extremely dangerous and many journalists have been killed, injured or kidnapped since the conflict started." A contributor to AFP's video service disappeared in November 2012. AFP now stipulates that all journalists working for service in Syria must have volunteered to cover the conflict and must have taken an AFP-approved hostile-environment training course.

Mapping it all out in Africa. FP's own John Reed of Killer Apps was struck by the 10 troops the U.S. announced it was sending to Africa and how it was all adding up to a larger American troop presence in Africa over the last decade. "You've probably heard about the 2,000-troop hub at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, and the 100 special operators hunting Joseph Kony. But less is known about the handful of U.S. drone bases scattered across the continent and the dozens of exercises involving hundreds, if not thousands, of American troops." Click here for Reed's interactive map of Africa in which you can see just how much the American military presence in Africa is. There are a bunch of other cool clicks on that post if you're trying to learn about what the U.S. is doing in Africa.

Now we know why Petraeus picked USC to begin his coming out party. AP reported early this morning that David Petraeus had accepted a part-time teaching gig at the University of Southern California and will help "mentor students who are veterans" as part of his Comeback Tour, which began last month at a veterans event at USC and which we first reported in March here. "P4" as he's known to those close to him will "teach and participate in seminars on such issues as international relations, government, leadership, information technology and energy," according to the AP. This is on top of the teaching gig he accepted at the City University of New York and a likely role at an equity firm.

Want to know what the top Army general, Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, thinks about the Asia pivot and Asia generally? The E-Ring's Kevin Baron did, too. Click here to find out what he said. 

The military's new recruits: Galaxy, iPhones. DOD is expected to grant security approvals for the Samsung Galaxy smartphone as well as the iPhone and iPad in the next few weeks, according to the WSJ this morning. "Both companies have been pushing hard to win over U.S. defense agencies, some of the government's most security-conscious customers. That market is small and still largely dominated by Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerrys, so the new security approvals won't likely translate into any immediate, big sales or new customers. Still, the approvals are among a handful considered to be the gold standard in communications security. Passing muster at the Pentagon can go a long way in making other security-minded customers -- such as bankers and lawyers -- feel more comfortable using the devices." Read all about it, here.

Helmand is booooorinnng. A McClatchy story out of Afghanistan's Helmand Province this morning captures the challenge the Marines there face as Afghans assume more combat responsibilities and Marines find themselves sitting on their hands. "For years, the Marines have fought and died in Helmand, a hot, dusty province in Afghanistan's south that's earned a bloody place in corps lore, right beside the likes of Anbar province in Iraq. It's been by far the deadliest province for the U.S.-led coalition, where more than 900 international soldiers have been killed, including more than 350 Marines. But the days of heavy combat and casualties in Helmand are over, at least for conventional American troops. And soon that might be true across Afghanistan. In the next few weeks, Afghan security forces are expected to reach one of the biggest milestones of the 11-year-old war: They'll officially take the lead in the few remaining pockets of the country where they haven't already."

The changes in Helmand: "Marines are no longer walking the harrowing foot patrols that once were common in much of the province. Instead, they mainly work on large bases, teaching and mentoring Afghan security forces, and simply packing up to leave. Some Marines are still exposed to risk, including those who run supply convoys and help clear the roads of bombs, and at least 30 have been wounded this year in the northern part of Helmand. But it's the Afghan army and police that are doing the real fighting in the province -- and taking the bulk of the casualties."

Will Afghanistan and Pakistan kiss and make up? Unclear. But the recent meeting of Afghan and Pakistani leaders with SecState John Kerry in Brussels "marked a renewed effort by the Obama administration to get these two South Asian nations to resolve hostilities that have fueled the war in Afghanistan," writes Daniel Sagalyn on FP. "The meeting came at a time when American officials believe that after years of supporting militants who were trying to undermine the Afghan government -- and as U.S. forces prepare to leave the region -- Pakistan has changed its approach to Kabul and has become more cooperative in seeking a political solution to the conflict raging next door, American officials say. However, even as they insist there is a new approach, those same officials acknowledge there has been no ‘measurable change' in support for the combatant groups U.S. and allied troops confront in Afghanistan."

Welcome Bruce Butler to the Navy League. The League just named Butler to be its new national executive director this week, replacing Dale "Kid" Lumme, who went to become EVP of Decision Lens. Butler will lead a "talented headquarters staff" to support the League's nearly 50,000 members. From the League: "A native of Mission San Jose, Calif., Butler is a retired Navy Captain with 29 years of leadership and management experience. He holds several naval specialty qualifications, including acquisition and operations analysis, and served his last tour leading the Navy's Office for Business Transformation and Process Improvement. His academic credentials include Masters' degrees from the University of San Diego and the National War College. Butler also served as a professor and Director of Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army War College. He was the Defense, Naval, and Coast Guard Attaché to the Republic of Argentina and deployed on five expeditionary and combat deployments, logging more than 4,000 flight hours." Thursday morning fact: the League is 111 years old.

Noting


  • NYT: McRaven charts new course for SOCOM. 
  • Battleland: Who knew the Pentagon had bad habits?
  • Military Times: Article 32 for senior leaders in diver deaths at Aberdeen. 
  • Washington Times: (Inside the Ring) Russia builds up, U.S. builds down. 
  • Haaretz: Former IDF chief: CW must be met with response in Syria. 
  • US News: Marines to Osprey air-to-air refueling this summer. 
  • Foreign Affairs: What to read on the Caucasus.