RUSSIA PUSHES THE ENVELOPE: Russia’s expansion of its air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad by staging bombers in Iran is another sign that Moscow does not feel at all constrained by negotiations with the U.S. over possible intelligence sharing and joint operations in Syria against the Islamic State. The status of those talks remains unclear, even as Russia’s defense minister keeps saying an agreement is close. The idea is for the U.S. and Russia to work together to end the siege of Aleppo and provide relief to the long-suffering population of what was once Syria’s second-largest city.
Yesterday’s bombing of targets in Syria is just the latest example of why many in the Pentagon don’t trust Russia to match deeds with its words. The Russian Defense Ministry said it targeted Islamic State fighters and militants from the group formerly known as the Nusra Front. But U.S. military spokesman Army Col. Chris Garver said there were no concentrations of ISIS in either Aleppo and Idlib, two provinces in Syria where the Russians were bombing. "We have not struck targets in Aleppo in a very long time. We have not struck targets in Idlib in a very long time, if we have at all. We don't see concentrations of ISIS in those areas,” Garver said.
And this morning, AP is reporting that Russia has launched another wave of attack flights from Iran. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the planes destroyed two command posts and two training camps in Syria after taking off from a base southwest of Tehran.
NOTHING WE CAN DO: When Russia informed the U.S. military of its plans to fly over Iraq from its new bases in Iran to bomb Syria, the U.S. had little choice but to stay out of the way. Russia was providing notification under a safety-of-flight memorandum signed by both sides, intended to prevent confrontation between American and Russian pilots over Syria. But while the U.S.-led coalition controls the skies over Iraq, it doesn’t own them. Iraq does, and yesterday Garver said he had no idea if Russia asked for or was granted permission from Iraq for the overflights. “If you're flying over another country's sovereign territory and sovereign airspace, you should get permission. I can't say one way or another in this if they did.”
The U.S. role was to make sure there was no unintended confrontation with the Russian bombers as they flew through Iraqi airspace populated by coalition planes bombing the Islamic State. Garver said the short notice was adequate to make sure the Russians were not challenged on the way to and from their targets. “It gave us enough time to react to make sure that the route in and the route out did not impact coalition operations. But I'm not going to talk about [whether] we specifically moved an aircraft five degrees to the left or five degrees to the right.”
But the State Department says Russia might have violated international law by flying combat aircraft out of Iran in order to strike targets in Syria, Pete Kasperowicz writes. A UN resolution requires that the body approve of any transfer of fighter aircraft to Iran, and the UN never approved Russia's use of Iran's air base. "If these reports are true, it could very well be a violation of UN Security Council resolution 2231, which ... prohibits the supply, sale or transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved in advance by the UN Security Council," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected the allegation, the AP reports, saying "there has been no supply, sale or transfer of combat jets to Iran" and said Russia is merely using Iran’s facilities.
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TRANSFERS GETTING TIGHTER? The administration’s transfer of 15 Gitmo detainees could affect negotiations over this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, according to Justin Johnson, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. “Aggressive” moves like the large transfer could cause lawmakers to crack down and tighten rules on moving detainees out of Guantanamo Bay.
Staff are meeting on Capitol Hill during recess to try to reconcile some of the smaller differences between the two bills. Major issues like the Gitmo transfer restrictions will likely need to be sorted out by lawmakers once they return from the summer break.
NSA HACK: WikiLeaks promised to release its own version of the National Security Agency data that a hacker group tried to auction off over the weekend, Rudy Takala reports. “We had already obtained the archive of NSA cyber weapons released earlier today and will release our own pristine copy in due course," WikiLeaks said in a tweet.
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, said the hack shows that the U.S. can be held accountable for cyber attacks, especially if they meddle in the affairs of other countries, like the outcomes of elections. He also speculated that Russia, where he has asylum, may be behind the hack. “This may be an effort to influence the calculus of decision-makers wondering how sharply to respond to the DNC hacks,” he said.
INTEL BRIEFINGS: Donald Trump will receive the first of his classified briefings today, Gabby Morrongiello reports. Joining him will be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Contrary to what you might think, there is no requirement for the candidate, and two advisers whom the candidate may choose, to have security clearances to get the briefings that provide the intelligence community’s assessment of various threats around the world, without disclosing sources or methods.
FINGER ON THE BUTTON: Trump’s critics have questioned whether the erratic businessman can be trusted with the power to launch a nuclear weapon. Read more here about what actually happens when the president decides to launch, along with the lack of checks and balances in this deadly decision that can be made by the president alone.
“GOD HELP US” That’s what former Secretary of State George Shultz is reported to have said when asked about the prospect of a Trump presidency. The Washington Post reports the former Ronald Reagan-era diplomat, now 95, has compiled a 226-page “Blueprint for America,” along with scholars at the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution. Only problem is the blueprint stresses the importance of open immigration, free trade and entitlement reform, all policy positions Trump has roundly rejected.
HUMAN SHIELDS PROTECT ISIS: The U.S. military says it was forced to hold its fire and watch as defeated Islamic State fighters fled the Syrian city of Manbij in convoys packed with civilian hostages, being used as human shields. As many as several hundred vanquished Islamic State fighters escaped Friday as the U.S. used surveillance drones to try to determine if the vehicles could be bombed without the loss of innocent lives. "Every vehicle had civilians that we could identify with our systems," U.S. military spokesman Garver said.
WE DON’T DO BODY COUNTS, EXCEPT WHEN WE DO: Outgoing counter-Islamic State commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland was the latest U.S. military briefer to violate the Pentagon’s well-worn maxim, “We don’t do body counts.” It’s one of the enduring lessons of the Vietnam War, that the number of enemy killed is simply not a reliable metric for measuring success. Yet MacFarland in his farewell briefing offered that the U.S.-led coalition has killed 45,000 Islamic State fighters since 2014. Foreign Policy has an explanation for why the adage is increasingly ignored. It may not indicate success, but it does influence public perception.
DoD MONEY MOVES: The Government Accountability Office has looked into complaints from the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Pentagon routinely shifts funds from its warfighting account to its day-to-day operations fund, without providing any way for Congress to exercise oversight. A GAO report found that the Pentagon “realigned” about $146.9 billion from fiscal years 2009 through 2015, but that the effects “were not readily apparent” because the DoD did not report its operation and maintenance obligations to Congress separately from its overseas contingency operations spending.
INVOKING THE HILLARY DEFENSE: A Navy sailor is hoping Hillary Clinton's email scandal will help him avoid prison time. The attorney for 29-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Kristian Saucier says the FBI's decision not to prosecute Clinton over mishandling classified information in her private email argues for his client getting probation instead of prison time. Saucier pleaded guilty in May of photographing parts of the propulsion system of a Los Angeles-class attack submarine Alexandria in 2009, which every sailor is told is highly classified.
NORTH KOREAN DEFECTION: A North Korean diplomat, who lived a comfortable life in London for nearly a decade, has gone missing along with his family, and the BBC reports he apparently left the U.K. hoping to defect to a third country. The diplomat, Thae Yong Ho, had served as deputy to the ambassador.
MAP OF THE MDAPS, GUIDE TO THE SARS: If you want to know what’s up with the Pentagon’s nearly 80 MDAPs or “major defense acquisition programs,” you need to check out the SARs, the unclassified “selected acquisition reports” submitted to Congress to support the Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 budget request as well as the FYDP, the “future years defense program” that runs through 2021. It’s a daunting task, but lucky for the you, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has done the heavy lifting with its handy “Weapon Systems Factbook” available online.
Included are four programs that don’t have public SARs, the Air Force’s new B-21 bomber; Long Range Standoff Missile, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (the future replacement for the Minuteman III) and the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program. The report’s authors say enough is known about those four programs to divine reasonable cost estimates, and given that they are among the Pentagon’s largest acquisition programs, “any discussion would be incomplete without them.”
THANKS CHRIS: Yesterday was Col. Garver’s last Skype briefing from Baghdad. The acting Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman was literally hopping on a helo Tuesday and heading back to the States for a hardship tour in Hawaii after signing off. On Sunday, Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend takes over as the three-star in charge of the counter-ISIS campaign, and after that, Army Col. Joseph Scrocca becomes the task force public affairs officer with Air Force Col. John Dorrian the designated media spokesperson.
Bloomberg: Air Force's ICBM upgrade stalled by Pentagon worries over cost
Breaking Defense: F-35Cs Undergo Helmet, EW Tests Plus Aboard USS George Washington
Defense One: Navy Pilots Describe How the F-35’s Brains Will Change Air Warfare
USNI News: Raytheon to Manufacture Naval Strike Missile Launchers in Kentucky
Defense News: Pending Patriot Radar Replacement Competition Heats Up
Defense One: US-Made Patriot Missiles Shoot Down Houthi Rockets
Military Times: Another former Joint Chiefs chairman blasts generals' involvement in politics
Associated Press: Clinton: Trump’s foreign policy ‘absolutely bewilders’ her
Army Times: Gen. Milley visits China amid THAAD missile system tensions
UPI: Modernized Russian bombers will be able to fly in the stratosphere
Marine Corps Times: One of two female Marines remains in MARSOC training
Military.com: Soldier Is 1st Military Athlete on US Olympic Team to Medal in Rio
THURSDAY | AUGUST 18
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. CSIS hosts Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of U.S. Naval Air Forces in the Pacific Fleet, to discuss the future of naval aviation. csis.org
FRIDAY | AUGUST 19
10 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. Thomas Kemper, who survived the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, will discuss his emotional recounting of the incident. press.org
THURSDAY | AUGUST 25
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, speaks at CSIS about the future of military innovation and joint capabilities. csis.org