National Security

Kerry to the Pentagon today; Did Syrian rebels use sarin?; Why bags of cash represent a failure in U.S. policy in Afg; Why Mabus loves the USS Makin Island; and a little bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Did Syrian rebels use sarin? Unclear, but a U.N. official says she has strong suspicions that Syrian rebel forces used the deadly nerve gas, potentially validating President Barack Obama's considered approach. Carla Del Ponte, the commissioner of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told an Italian-Swiss TV station that Syrian rebel forces have used the nerve agent, even as a Free Syrian Army spokesman said rebels don't have any unconventional weapons and don't want any. FSA's Louay Almokdad, quoted by CNN: "More importantly, we do not aspire to have (chemical weapons) because we view our battle with the regime as a battle for the establishment of a free democratic state....We want to build a free democratic state that recognizes and abides by all international accords and agreements -- and chemical and biological warfare is something forbidden legally and internationally."

NYT's Bill Keller on why Syria is not Iraq: "Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America's national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk. But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy." Read his piece here.

Kerry to the Pentagon today. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is headed to Russia, will first lunch at the Pentagon for the first time since he became secretary. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been wanting to host Kerry at the building since Hagel arrived in February, we're told. Easy prediction: Syria is a top agenda item.

Welcome to Monday'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.

Deteriorating relations: new fighting along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another round of fighting erupted today in a border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharpening the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries, Reuters reports. The clash today erupted after Pakistani troops tried to repair a gate on the border in the Afghan district of Goshta -- the same area where an Afghan border police officer was killed in an exchange of gunfire last week. Bad fences, bad neighbors. Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai hinted that the Taliban should turn their weapons toward Pakistan and said that no Afghan government would recognize the Durand Line, the boundary between the two countries drawn by the British. The WSJ over the weekend: "Mr. Karzai's comments -- his strongest remarks yet since the border clashes -- may complicate U.S.-led efforts to mediate a peace settlement and to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Pakistan as most international troops prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014. ‘Without cooperation with Pakistan, we will never be able to reach stability in Afghanistan,' cautioned Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst. ‘We need their assistance for negotiations with the Taliban but we also depend on them for our economy.'" 

Revelation that the CIA has been handing Karzai bags of cash as an object lesson in self-defeating U.S. Afghanistan policy. The tale of the CIA's payments to Afghan President Hamid Karzai lead Sarah Chayes, writing on FP, to raise a number of issues. Read her piece on FP here and you'll know why she concludes with a laundry list of questions about the CIA, corruption in Afghanistan, the arrest of Muhammad Zia Salehi, later to be identified as the CIA's bag man, and why Karzai at the time ordered his release: "So whom did Salehi call from his jail cell the afternoon of his arrest? Was it Karzai, as many presumed at the time? Or was it the CIA station chief? What began as a test case on Afghan corruption, in other words, turned into a test case in U.S. foreign-policy dysfunction, raising a number of further questions of deeper import to the United States. Just how connected are CIA activities to core U.S. goals abroad? Or to a concerted plan for achieving them? To what extent do CIA officials set their own agenda? Is that agenda always in the U.S. national interest? How often is it at cross-purposes with the goals of the president, the department of state, even the military? What is the appropriate degree of transparency and accountability to prevent the inadvertent sabotage of other U.S. efforts and investments? Who must call these shots?" Chayes, in conclusion: "Only if senior U.S. leaders have the courage to address these questions directly, to arbitrate them clearly, and enforce their decisions, can U.S. foreign policy hope in the future to avoid the tragic waste of lives and effort that has characterized the past decade."

Eight more questions - from Tom Ricks's inbox - for the Navy's pro-carrier admirals. Last week, we ran excerpts of an FP piece written by three Navy admirals -- David Buss, William Moran, and Thomas Moore -- celebrating carriers and why the U.S. needs them in its maritime arsenal. It concluded: "Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a ‘permission slip' for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power."

A friend of FP's Ricks, "appalled at what he regarded as the ostrich-like views of the high-ranking authors," wrote him to pose eight questions, from "To what degree will China be able to impede our ability to freely use carriers in the Pacific in the future?" to "When does the POTUS realize that for years we have built platforms that we cannot afford to lose, either in monetary cost or the cost of lives?" The anonymous friend concludes: "The Navy has already accepted that the fleet is going to shrink to 270 ships, and I am here to tell you that it will go smaller than that, probably 230 before this is all done. This is largely because all of those ships that were built by Reagan are all retiring at the same time and we are not building replacements at the same rate right now. That will be the price of maintaining 10-11 supercarriers at $12-13 billion with an annual shipbuilding budget of $15 billion. The price will decrease overall naval presence, and raise questions as to the U.S. commitment to local security concerns." Read Ricks's friend's e-mail in its entirety, here.

Mabus talked Navy fuel costs on the Hill on Friday. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus did his people-platforms-power-and-partnerships stump speech -- essentially laying out the Navy's priorities -- at the Truman Project's annual conference. That includes green power and the need for making smart energy choices, he has said, often repeating the metric that "every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs [the Navy] an additional $30 million in fuel costs." He pointed to the USS Makin Island, the newest amphibious assault ship, as an example of the way new ships are greener and more energy efficient than before. "Last summer the ship returned from its maiden deployment. Between the conservation training of the crew and the high efficiency systems the ship only spent about $18 million of the $33 million fuel budget for the seven-month deployment," he said -- a $15 million savings. "Plans for our next two big-deck amphibious ships, USS America and USS Tripoli, include hybrid electric systems like the Makin Island and we are working on a similar system to back-fit onto our destroyers."

Mabus also pointed to the Marine Corps's Experimental Forward Operating Base program, or ExFOB, in which the Corps is developing alternative energy systems that don't rely on traditional energy sources -- like fuel and batteries -- that put logistical pressure on the Navy and, according to Mabus, unnecessarily put Marines in harm's way. The 2010 deployment of an ExFOB in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2010, using forms of energy like solar blankets, LED lights, and solar generators, was a proof of concept: It allowed a foot patrol in Afghanistan to operate for three weeks without battery resupply, "reducing the backpack load on Marines and increasing self-sufficiency at operation centers." Now, Mabus said, the equipment is a "standard part of the Marine Corps kit."

Noting

  • Inside Defense: Draft reprogramming would shift $9 billion, cut $4 billion from modernization. 
  • Quartz: The worst case cybersecurity breaches could be worse than you imagined.
  • The Atlantic: Have you ever tried to force feed a captured human? 
  • Defense News: DOD halts shifting war money into base budget.
  • Stripes: Air Force names airmen killed in Krygyzstan crash.  

Syria

  • Daily Beast: Israel's red line crossed, U.S. tacitly backs ally's strikes in Syria.
  • Weekly Standard: Syrian general says he was given order to use CW against rebels.
  • The Guardian: Syria accuses Israel of declaring war after further airstrikes.
  • NPR: Kerry's visit to Russia a chance to talk Syria, mend fences.

The Stans

  • Stripes: Seven Americans, one German killed in spate of Afghan attacks.
  • LAT: Crashed U.S. cars get second chance in Afghanistan. 
  • TVNZ: Fighting erupts between Afghanistan, Pakistan. 

 

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.