National Security

The Navy's big drone test; A white elephant for Afghanistan; Frustration with furloughs; Will Europeans fighting Assad become terrorists?; George Little’s briefing in brief; Tom Donilon to CFR; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold

Will the robot stick the landing? The Navy is amped up today about the landing of its latest drone on an aircraft carrier. This morning, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and others will watch as the X-47B, a prototype will make an arrested landing on the U.S.S. Bush aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia. That's a remarkable feat for any pilot. But this aircraft will be, of course, unmanned. If successful, today's test will put the Navy one step closer to full-time carrier drone ops. Earlier this year, the drone took off from the Bush, landing on land sometime later. Today's event will be the first landing on a carrier. All the Navy's carriers are expected to have drones in the coming years as a mark of the Navy's move to transform naval air power. Drones extend the reach of a carrier since they are seen as having double the range of, say, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

CHINFO's Rear Adm. John Kirby, to Situation Report, via e-mail - "We are very excited about today's test on board USS George H.W. Bush.  We've tested the X-47B extensively ashore, and it's done exceptionally well.  We believe it's ready.  It's time to bring it in for an arrested landing at sea. Navy air wings of the future will include an appropriate mix of both manned and unmanned aircraft.  Today's test is a big first step in realizing that goal."

We'll update you later - Situation Report is going along for the ride this morning, on a V-22, to the Bush. As requested, we've provided the Navy info on our next-of-kin.

Welcome to Wednesday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And as always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. Please follow us @glubold. And remember, if you see something, say something -- to Situation Report.

Will Europeans helping topple Assad become next year's terrorists at home? Up to a thousand Europeans are headed to Syria but there is a growing fear that these "irregulars" will become hardened terrorists and then return to France, Germany, the U.K. and elsewhere and pose a threat.  FP's Colum Lynch:  "But while ministers from these irregulars' governments say they too are in favor of toppling Assad, these same officials are doing everything they can to stop these fighters -- or at least develop new laws to criminalize their activities. The reason: fear that these irregulars will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front. On a single day in April and in a single country, Belgium, the authorities launched 48 raids on suspected jihadi recruiters believed to be luring Belgians to fight in Syria." French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, to Lynch: "It is a ticking time bomb." Read the rest, here.

Furlough frustration. We had a brief item yesterday about what you can and cannot do on furlough days, including the guidance that defense civilians on forced vacation from work must leave the BlackBerry alone. That prompted a reader of Situation Report (and defense civilian) to suggest that the Defense Department sends mixed signals on BlackBerries:  "Here is what kills me: Yes, ‘Don't touch that BlackBerry.'  But why do they issue us BB's??  It is so we can check them and stay in touch when not at work, meaning weekends/evenings.  Yet just like on a furlough day, I am not paid for weekends or evenings, either.  So my first furlough day will be this Friday.  I am under orders NOT to turn on my BB from 0001-2400 on Friday ‘because I am on furlough.'  But I am a professional so I will definitely wake up Saturday morning and check my BB.  I work in an operational unit of 400 people that is over 60% military... so we will continue to have operations on-going.  I need to stay connected.  The hypocrisy of this amazes me.  So I will look at my BB all day Saturday and Sunday to stay current and to catch up on what I missed on Friday, and Monday when I go to work...oh, wait.. NOPE!  I'm furloughed on Monday too!  So the BB will go back off till Tuesday, probably right after midnight so I can see what I missed.  And this makes sense to anyone?"

Is this Afghanistan's "whitest elephant?" There is a beautiful, new 64,000-square foot command center in Afghanistan's Helmand Province - just what U.S. commanders said they didn't want - and it's all ready to go. Excepting one problem - the U.S. probably won't have any troops to send to it. The WaPo's Rajiv Chandrasekaran: "The windowless, two-story structure, which is larger than a football field, was completed this year at a cost of $34 million. But the military has no plans to ever use it. Commanders in the area, who insisted three years ago that they did not need the building, now are in the process of withdrawing forces and see no reason to move into the new facility. For many senior officers, the unused headquarters has come to symbolize the staggering cost of Pentagon mismanagement: As American troops pack up to return home, U.S.-funded contractors are placing the finishing touches on projects that are no longer required or pulling the plug after investing millions of dollars."

And: "But some senior officers see the giant headquarters as the whitest elephant in a war littered with wasteful, dysfunctional and unnecessary projects funded by American taxpayers. A hulking presence at the center of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, it has become the butt of jokes among Marines stationed there and an object lesson for senior officers in Kabul and Washington. The top Marine commander in Helmand sent a memo to the U.S. headquarters in Kabul three years ago stating that the new structure was unnecessary. But his assessment was ignored or disregarded by officers issuing contracts for construction projects, according to senior military officials familiar with the issue."

A little exquisite? "The building's amenities also have prompted alarm among senior officers. A two-star Marine general who has toured the facility called it ‘better appointed than any Marine headquarters anywhere in the world.' A two-star Army general said the operations center is as large as those at the U.S. Central Command or the supreme allied headquarters in Europe." Read the rest, here.

Also, read "The best bluffs of the U.S. Afghan relationship," on FP, here.

Tom Donilon, a distinguished fellow. Former National Security Adviser Donilon, joining CFR this month, per Mike Allen's Playbook this morning. Read James Mann's piece on Donilon on FP from May, which posted shortly before Donilon stepped down, here.

Chuck Hagel says DOD schools aren't out of the woods just yet. Stripes' Chris Carroll:  "If budget cuts roll on in coming years, Department of Defense schools are going to face tough choices, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told military educators on Tuesday. Hagel, speaking at a training seminar of the Military Child Education Coalition held near Washington, said DOD has done what it could to shield the Department of Defense Education Activity from the worst ravages of sequestration. That included giving principals leeway to arrange staff furloughs so the school year is not disrupted, and school accreditations are not threatened. Officials also took steps to protect special testing required for graduation or advanced college credit." Hagel: "While there are efforts to replace sequester, there is no guarantee they will be successful," Hagel said. "We teach our kids to plan ahead, to be prepared.  We tell them proper planning prevents poor performance.  We must live that lesson as well." Read the rest, here.

Lottsa questions, no easy answers, apparently. Pentagon press secretary George Little briefed reporters in the building yesterday on everything from Egypt to Syria to force-feeding detainees at Gitmo. Many questions stemmed from the NYT story yesterday (was it a trial balloon?) that hinted at an accelerated drawdown from Afghanistan due to the souring relationship between Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai.

Little, on post-2014 Afghanistan: "Any potential U.S. military presence beyond 2014 would focus on a few basic missions:  targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda and its affiliates; and training and equipping Afghan forces, our partners.  We are continuing our conversations with the Afghans on how we could carry out those missions, which is why we're in discussions about the bilateral security agreement, among other things."

On the "zero option" for post-2014: "This decision at the end of the day is the president's to make, our enduring presence beyond 2014.  I'm not going to get into the specifics of our recommendations one way or the other with the White House."

On the "time and space" available to make a decision on Afghanistan: "So I can't say for certain what would be involved."

On how Hagel would convey the supposed views of the uniforms on ensuring there is a force in Afghanistan after 2014: "I'm not going to characterize one way or another, their views."

On was the NYT story a "trial balloon," as one reporter suggested: "I'm not aware that this was a trial balloon.  I can't say that for sure."

On the current situation in Egypt: "The department supports overall U.S. government policy on Egypt right now and that we're -- and that is that we're committed to the democratic process in Egypt, and we don't support any single party or group and that we support a transition to civilian authority and to democratic principles, as defined by the Egyptian people."

On whether it's a coup - "Because we haven't made a determination in this regard, I'm not going to speculate on what the consequences may or may not be.  Historically, the Department of Defense has had a close relationship with the Egyptian military, and we hope that, under the right circumstances, that can continue."

On reports that U.S. shipments to the Syrian opposition have been frozen: "I wouldn't comment directly on those reports.  But the administration has been clear that we're looking for ways to provide military support to the Syrian opposition.  I'm not going to inventory when and how that might be occurring, but that's the stated intent of this administration, and we will continue to pursue ways of doing that."

On the AP story yesterday on the problems in the POW/MIA program and whether the Pentagon leadership knew about them before the AP report: "Sometimes media reports raise attention... in a department of three million people."

Full transcript of yesterday's briefing, here.

What's the future of the maritime forces, anyway? Glad you asked. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos talk about that very subject tomorrow at 9 a.m. at CSIS in Washington. 

Noting

  • Stripes: Workers protesting work force cuts at base in Africa.
  • Breaking Defense: A glimpse inside Air-Sea Battle; nukes, cyber at its heart.
  • AP: Air Force pulls sexual assault brochure over it including objectionable advice.
  • Small Wars: Sequestration as Godsend: Operate DOD as a business.
  • Defense News: Feinstein, Levin: slap restrictions on mil aid to Egypt. 
  • USAT: Special Forces' marriages on shaky ground, survey says. 
  • Duffel Blog: Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright blames Stuxnet leaks on "those daggum Duke boys."

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