MATTIS AT CENTCOM: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took a small press contingent with him as he returns to his old stamping grounds in Tampa, Florida: U.S. Central Command, where he used be the top dog. Mattis will confer with CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel, and talk to rank and file, but most of his activities are closed to the press. “I always worry whether or not it's going to be a waste of your time, because I got to do a lot of stuff behind closed doors,” Mattis told reporters aboard his Air Force C-32, the military version of the Boeing 757. Mattis did take a few questions from reporters before reverting to his preferred method of interacting with the media off the record.

THE NIGER AMBUSH: Mattis disputed the idea that the U.S. soldiers who came under attack in Niger last week did not have the benefit of a plan to swiftly evacuate them if they were in extremis. The 12-man team was meeting with villagers during what was supposed to be a routine patrol with Nigerien forces. Mattis said the attack was a total surprise. “I've been told that it's in an area where the enemy has not operated before was ambushed, and hit hard.” And he said while the U.S. did not have air assets nearby, the French did, and quickly responded. “Within 30 minutes, the French airplanes were overhead,” Mattis said. “So basically the ambush happened, and French pilots were overhead, fast movers with bombs on them ready to help. And helicopters were coming in behind, and that sort of thing. Nigerien troops were moving quickly, they had French advisers with them. They were on the move.”

The U.S. military is committed to the “golden hour” standard for evacuating wounded from the battlefield, because getting medical attention within the first hour gives wounded troops the best chance for survival. “I completely reject the idea that that was slow,” Mattis said. “However … we will look at this and say was there something we have to adapt to now? Should we have been in a better stance? We're not complacent. We're going to be better.”

ISIS IN NIGER: CNN reported yesterday that the attack, which claimed the lives of four U.S. soldiers, was carried out by an affiliate of the Islamic State, and while U.S. Africa Command said it has still not determined which group was responsible, a senior Pentagon official told us he “would not dispute” the CNN account. CNN said after-action interviews with surviving soldiers said they thought something was up when villagers seemed to be deliberately delaying their departure, as if they knew the attack was coming.

TALKING TURKEY: It’s apparent that U.S. relations with key NATO ally Turkey are fraught with tension, but Mattis insisted the latest flap over the arrest of the U.S. Embassy employee and the resulting tit-for-tat visa war was not affecting the military alliance, at least not yet. “The mil-to-mil interaction and integration has not been affected by this. Incirlik is fully open,” Mattis said, referring to the air base. “We have to also make certain our airports talk to each other because they're operating in that northern Iraq, northern Syria, southern Turkey area. So, that's been unaffected.”

But Mattis acknowledged America’s relationship with Turkey, which increasingly seems to be turning away from the West and tilting toward Moscow, is complicated. “Turkey is a NATO ally of many decades, but Turkey is the only NATO country with an active insurgency within its borders,” Mattis said, while downplaying the rift. “I've heard every year because of some complexity that we're going to lose mil-to-mil cooperation with fill-in-the-country. And frankly, that people move on to the next anticipated problem,” Mattis said. “It's a NATO ally that we will work hard to stay aligned with against our common enemy, and we are doing good work together military to military.”

AND NOW FOR THE GOOD STUFF: In his plane conversation with reporters Mattis promised, “You'll get more from me off the record,” and the official Pentagon transcript indicates Mattis ended the on-the-record session when a reporter asked for a “temperature check” on North Korea. “How dangerous is the situation?” Mattis began to answer when a staffer suggested he take that one off the record.

NUKE DENIAL: Before departing for MacDill Air Force Base yesterday, Mattis issued a terse statement at the behest of the president, backing Trump’s claim that an NBC report that he expressed a desire for a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal was fake news. “Recent reports that the President called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are absolutely false,” Mattis said in a two-sentence statement issued by the Pentagon in his name. “This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible.”

Trump went further in an appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it,” Trump said, insisting he doesn’t want a bigger arsenal, just a better arsenal “I want to have an absolutely perfectly maintained, which we are in the process of doing, nuclear force,” Trump said. “But when they said I want 10 times what we have right now, it's totally unnecessary, believe me, because I know — I know what we have right now.”

The NBC News story, published early Wednesday morning, said Trump's comments occurred during a meeting at the Pentagon July 20, after Trump was shown a briefing slide illustrating the reduction of nuclear stockpile since the 1960s. “Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve,” NBC said.

KEEP IN MIND: Trump did indeed seem to be calling for a nuclear buildup in December when he tweeted: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." But that could also be a reference to the Obama-era plan to spend an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize or replace all three legs of the nuclear triad. Or as Trump said, yesterday. “We won't need an increase, but I want modernization and I want total rehabilitation. It's got to be in tip-top shape.”

Good Thursday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.



HAPPENING TODAY, ‘UNFIT FOR DUTY’: The Heritage Foundation is sponsoring a forum today on one of the most critical issues facing the military. It’s not the budget, not North Korea or Iran. It’s the sad shape of America’s youth, on which the U.S. military must draw to keep the all-volunteer force in fighting form. According to Heritage the U.S. armed forces depend on approximately 200,000 citizens to volunteer every year.

“Unfortunately, the Pentagon reports that 71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 cannot join the military, due primarily to inadequate education, physical unfitness, record of serious crime, or drug abuse. Furthermore, obesity remains a bigger threat to our country now than it was a generation ago. Unaddressed, this situation poses a national security crisis: America will not be able to maintain the size and type of armed forces necessary to defend the nation’s interests, a potentially catastrophic situation,” Heritage said.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commanding general, Army Recruiting Command; and Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, commanding general, Army Center for Initial Military Training, discuss "A Looming National Security Crisis: Young Americans Unable to Join the Military," at the Heritage Foundation at 10 a.m.

TRUMP ON NORTH KOREA: On Sean Hannity’s show on Fox last night, Trump said he does not want to talk about what he has in store for North Korea. “I’m not saying I’m doing anything and I’m not saying I’m not, but we shouldn’t be talking about it.” Trump did express high confidence in America’s missile defenses, saying, “We have missiles that can knock out a missile out of the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked down.”

Trump continues to talk about his promised military buildup as if it has already a happened. “We have done a really, really good job with the military. We're building up our military. We just had an over $700 billion budget, which will be approved,” Trump told Forbes two days ago. By the time he got to Hannity the budget had grown to nearly $800 billion. “I’m building up the military like nobody’s ever seen. We’re close to $800 billion.” Congress has yet to pass a defense budget, and the Pentagon continues to operate under a continuing resolution limiting spending to last year’s levels. But even without the continuing resolution, the defense budget is subject to a cap $549 billion.

COHEN SAYS CUT THE TRASH TALK: Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, the lone republican in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, used a lot football analogies yesterday on CNN to urge Trump to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric toward North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

“I think we're seeing trash talking carried out at the global level now. I know that the president wants to give instructions to the NFL about what their players should or should not do during the national anthem. But I would hope the NFL would give the president some instructions in saying, we don't tolerate taunting. We don't tolerate taunting on the football field, because a taunt is calculated to provoke a physical reaction. And you could have a fight break out. So, no taunting allowed,” Cohen said.

Cohen wondered aloud if Trump was actually spoiling for a fight with North Korea. “Trash talking now could, in fact, escalate. Taunting could provoke the North Koreans, and it may be that the president wants to taunt North Korea into taking some kind of an action which we could then respond with overwhelming force. I hope that's not the case that we're leading up to that, but that's a possibility.”

TIME FOR AN AUDIBLE: “Let me stay with the football analogy,” Cohen said. “It may be time for the United States to call an audible, in terms of what our policy and practice should be and what the strategy should be in going after the North Koreans should we ever have to do that.” Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the reported theft of secret joint U.S.-South Korean war plans by hackers in the North, Cohen seemed unconcerned. “I don't know if the report is true,” Cohen said. “But even if it is true, I think we have enough flexibility in our contingency plans to take whatever action we need to take in order to achieve our objective. I wouldn't get too hung up on that.”

‘THE WICK OF WAR’: Meanwhile, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Trump has "lit the wick of war,” according to a report carried by Russia's TASS news agency. "With his bellicose and insane statement at the United Nations, Trump, you can say, has lit the wick of a war against us," Ri was quoted as saying. "We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words."

LORD’S OUTREACH TO INDUSTRY: The Pentagon’s newly appointed top weapons buyer laid out her approach to working with defense contractors at the final day of the Association of the U.S. Army conference. “I’ve decided other than for extraordinary reasons I’m not taking many one-on-one meetings with industry,” said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. But the industry will get access to Pentagon officials through four forums each year coordinated by trade groups such as the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Defense Industrial Association. Lord said she attended one of the forums last week. “What we asked them to do was to bring six or so CEOs from each of their member companies making sure that we got a broad range of small, medium and large companies and it was their agenda to talk about where their issues were,” Lord said.

The Pentagon’s six largest prime contractors will get regular meetings inside the building more often. “I’m doing one a month so each of the key six primes will get two a year,” she said. “We did the first one with General Dynamics just yesterday.” Lord’s office will also focus on the big picture with the contractors, leaving more of the details of individual programs to the military services. “I want to look at supplies from a portfolio point of view and not just get caught up in each program,” she said.

MISSILES TO THE NETHERLANDS: The State Department announced yesterday that the U.S. has cleared the possible sale of 26 Raytheon advanced, medium-range, air-to-air missiles to the Netherlands. The deal would be worth $53 million if it goes through.

NEXT POLICY CHIEF: Trump intends to nominate John Rood to be undersecretary of defense for policy, the White House announced last night. Rood is senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International, and before that, VP for business development at Raytheon. His government experience includes deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy.

TRUMP ON IRAN: On Hannity last night, Trump said he knows exactly what he plans to do about the Iran nuclear deal this week. “I can’t give it away tonight, but I’m going to be announcing it very shortly.” Asked by Hannity why he doesn't just pull out of the deal instead of decertify that the accord is not in U.S. national interest, Trump said, “You can do both.” Trump made clear he has not changed his mind about the flaws in the agreement. “I think it was one of the most incompetently-drawn deals I’ve have ever seen,” Trump said. “We got nothing. They got a path to nuclear weapons very quickly.”

The Washington Post reported last night that the announcement Trump will make is the result of a compromise fashioned by national security adviser H.R. McMaster “aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as ‘an embarrassment’ without killing it outright.”

“McMaster realized we just cannot come back here next time with a binary option — certify or decertify,” the post quoted a “person familiar with the July discussion.” as saying. “He put his team to work on a range of other options, including a decertification option that would involve Congress” and would not immediately break the deal, the paper said.

NO NEW DEAL: Iran "will never renegotiate" its landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. should Trump move to dismantle the agreement this week, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Wednesday. Zarif told Iranian lawmakers that if the Trump administration moves to cancel the nuclear deal or change its terms, President Hassan Rouhani will give the U.S. "a more crushing response." The foreign minister's remarks were reported by state-run media in Iran.

GREATER IRANIAN THREAT: Trump is giving Iran "running room" to threaten Israel and other Middle East partners, according to a veteran of Hillary Clinton's State Department. "[T]hey appear to have taken their eye off the ball of the broader Iranian threat," Jake Sullivan, Clinton's top foreign policy advisor, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

This is a criticism usually made of President Barack Obama's negotiations with Iran, and it was unusual to hear it from a Democrat about Trump.

NEXT DHS HEAD: Trump on Wednesday announced his intent to nominate Kirstjen Nielsen to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Nielsen, 45, worked as second-in-command under former DHS Secretary John Kelly. In July, Kelly was picked to serve as White House chief of staff. He moved to the White House and took Nielsen with him. She has worked as principal deputy chief of staff since the summer.

If confirmed, Nielsen would be the first former DHS employee to be promoted to chief of the 15-year-old department. She also worked at DHS' Transportation Security Administration and served on the White House Homeland Security Council under President George W. Bush. Nielsen guided Kelly through his Senate confirmation process, where the two developed a close working relationship.

DOGS OF WAR: Five dogs who served in the U.S. military were awarded the American Humane Lois Pope K-9 Medal of Courage yesterday to recognize the canines' extraordinary valor during their time of service.

"By helping locate enemy positions, engage the enemy, and sniff out deadly [improvised explosive devices] and hidden weapons, military dogs have saved countless lives in the fight for freedom and they deserve the recognition they are getting this evening," Rep. Gus Bilirakis said Wednesday on Capitol Hill during the awards ceremony.

Four of the dogs who received the awards were present, as one has died. The recipients were Capa, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Alphie, who served in Afghanistan, Coffee, who completed three tours in Afghanistan, Ranger, who served alongside Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Gabe, who engaged in more than 200 combat missions in Iraq before passing away in 2013.

THE RUNDOWN

Reuters: Trump resists pressure to soften stance on Iran nuclear deal

Wall Street Journal: How One ‘Ridiculous Mistake’ Gave North Korea Access To Secret U.S. War Plans

New York Times: Niger attack lays bare U.S. troops’ long wait for medical help in Africa

Defense One: Top defense CEO blasts Washington budget gridlock

War on the Rocks: What’s really behind Tom Cotton’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal

Navy Times: ‘I now hate my ship’: Surveys reveal disastrous morale on cruiser Shiloh

Navy Times: Navy stands up first underwater drone squadron

USA Today: Turkey and U.S.: Key military and economic allies collide again, jeopardizing vital ties

Foreign Policy: Leading lawmakers wonder why Trump is dragging feet on Russia sanctions

USNI News: China chides U.S. over latest South China Sea freedom of navigation operation

Defense News: L3 head: Our reputation is on the line if Compass Call goes wrong

AP: Democrats who opposed Iran nuke deal urge Trump to keep pact

Calendar

THURSDAY | OCT. 12

8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with Maj. Gen. Stephen Farmen, Army Security Assistance Command. centermediasecurity.org

9:30 a.m. Rayburn 2172. Markup hearing on the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act. foreignaffairs.house.gov

10 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. A looming national security crisis of young Americans unable to join the military with Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, and Rep. Don Bacon. Heritage.org

11 a.m. Pentagon Briefing Room. Maj. Gen. Robert White, commanding general, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command - Operation Inherent Resolve, briefs reporters  media live from Baghdad. Live streamed at www.defense.gov/live.

11 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Is This the beginning of the end for the Iran nuclear accord? wilsoncenter.org

12 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. What’s next for the U.S. Iran policy. heritage.org

2 p.m. House Visitor Center 210. Empty threat or serious danger: Assessing North Korea’s risk to the homeland. homeland.house.gov

6:30 p.m. 1301 K St. NW. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius will speak one-on-one with U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison. washingtonpost.com

MONDAY | OCT. 16

11 a.m. 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Terror, propaganda and the birth of the “new man”: Experiences from Cuba, North Korea and the Soviet Union. cato.org

TUESDAY | OCT. 17

11:15 a.m. 1700 Army Navy Dr. NDIA Washington, D.C. chapter defense leaders forum luncheon with Vice Adm. Robert Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel, training and education. ndia.org

12:15 p.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. The diplomacy of decolonization and United Nations peacekeeping during the Congo Crisis of 1960-1964. stimson.org

WEDNESDAY | OCT. 18

10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A book talk with Sir Lawrence Freedman about "The Future of War: A History.” csis.org

12 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Kevan Harris on Iran from below and findings from the Iran social survey. atlanticcouncil.org

3 p.m. 529 14th St. NW. The KRG independence referendum and regional realities with Arshad Al-Salihi, the Iraqi Turkmen Front leader and a member of the Iraq Parliament; James F. Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; and Lukman Faily, former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. press.org

THURSDAY | OCT. 19

12:15 p.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW. The fait accompli in the 21st century security landscape: From Crimea to Doklam to the Spratly Islands. stimson.org

3 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. A strategy for the trans-Pacific century: Final report of the Atlantic Council’s Asia-Pacific strategy task force. atlanticcouncil.org

3 p.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. The North Korean nuclear challenge and international response. heritage.org