SAFE ZONES IN SYRIA: While cautioning that the war against the Islamic State is not yet over, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the key to bringing peace to Syria is to broaden existing “de-escalation zones” in the war-torn country, while pressing all sides to move ahead with a U.N.-brokered peace process in Geneva. Until that happens, the relatively small number of U.S. troops won’t be going anywhere, Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. “That doesn't mean everyone stays there. That doesn't mean for certain troops are leaving,” Mattis said. “I've honestly not made those decisions.”
While Russia is in Syria at the invitation of the government of Bashar Assad, the United States is in the country under a U.N. authorization to pursue ISIS, and that war is coming to an end. “Basically we can go after ISIS. And we're there to take them out. But that doesn't mean we just walk away and let ISIS 2.0 pop back around,” Mattis said. “The enemy hasn't declared they’re done with the war yet. So, we'll keep fighting them as long as they want to fight.”
Over the weekend the State Department announced an agreement negotiated with Russia that lays out a process to deal with the underlying civil war once ISIS is defeated and the level of violence is lowered. But Mattis also cautioned that while the demise of ISIS seems a foregone conclusion, it’s premature to declare victory. “They still hold ground in Syria. They still hold ground in Iraq,” Mattis said. “You have to destroy the physical caliphate first. You cannot allow them to hold a haven.”
ERDOGAN ON SYRIA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says both American and Russian military forces should withdraw from Syria in order to facilitate the peace process. “If a military solution cannot help find a way out of the crisis, then those who think so should pull their troops out of Syria," Erdogan said Monday, in remarks translated by Russian media. Erdogan’s comments come in response to the joint statement from Trump and Putin calling for an “ultimate political solution to the conflict” that has convulsed Syria since 2011.
MATTIS UNPLUGGED: Once again Mattis’ interaction with reporters came in the form of a hallway drop-by, which is the camera-shy defense secretary’s preferred forum for sparring with the embedded Pentagon media. Reporters who don’t happen to be around for the unannounced engagements must try to decipher the official Pentagon transcript, which is rife with what appear to be obvious transcription errors, and a few inaudible sections. Nevertheless here are some highlights:
Trump’s nuclear authority: Asked about today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the president’ sole and exclusive authority to launch a nuclear strike, Mattis indicated he does not see any problem with the current arrangement, which gives Trump unchecked control of the launch codes. “You're comfortable with the system the way it exists?” one reporter asked. “Yes, sir, I am.” Asked whether he was in the chain of command in the event of a presidential decision to begin a nuclear war, Mattis said, “I'm the president's principal adviser on the use of force.” (The hearing begins immediately after the committee’s business meeting, which starts this morning at 10.)
Lifting the spending caps: The big increase in Pentagon spending in the $700 billion defense authorization bill headed for vote today (see below) is meaningless unless Congress also acts to lift the spending limits imposed by the Budget Control act of 2011. Asked if he is more sanguine about Congress ending the so-called sequester, Mattis said “No. No, not right now. No.” “So basically you're kind of pessimistic about it?” a reporter offered. “No, not pessimistic,” Mattis replied drawing laughter.
The three-carrier exercise: While the president during his Asia trip touted the massive naval exercise in the Western Pacific as an unparalleled demonstration of U.S. military force in the face of continued North Korea defiance, Mattis shrugged it off as no big deal. “There's no big message,” Mattis said insisting the three U.S. aircraft carriers just happened to be in the same area because of a quirk in scheduling. The Navy has publicized the exercise extensively, releasing photos, video, press statements and flying reporters out to ships to cover the event. “This is what we normally do with allies. This is a normal operation of interoperability and working together.”
Meanwhile North Korea warned the unprecedented deployment of three U.S. aircraft carrier groups “taking up a strike posture” around the Korean Peninsula is making it impossible to predict when nuclear war will break out, according to the AP.
The Baghdad-Kurdish dispute: Mattis said the U.S. is still not taking taking sides in the dispute between Iraq’s central government and Kurdish separatists in the North. “So far you can see the Iraq government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government under a new leader in Erbil working together,” Mattis said. “We don't see ourselves pressing one side. We're trying to facilitate the two sides as we resolve this.” Mattis said the U.S. is hoping the end of the battle against ISIS won’t also mean the end to cooperation between Iraqi Kurds and the government of Haider al-Abadi. “You're aware, for the first time in probably 100 years that the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces fought together under very difficult conditions with severe casualties to take the enemy down,” Mattis said. “So we don't want to lose, you know, all of that collaboration now over this issue.”
Turkey buying Russian missiles: Asked about the decision by Turkey, a key NATO ally, to buy Russian S-400 air defense missiles, Mattis said tersely, “That's a sovereign decision for Turkey. Clearly, it will not be interoperable with NATO. So they're going to have to consider that if they go forward.” Erdogan has been seeking closer ties with Moscow, and at the beginning of a meeting with Putin in Sochi yesterday, Putin said, “I want to note at the beginning of our meeting that our relations can be considered practically completely restored," according to Russian state news agency TASS.
TRUMP EN ROUTE HOME: Trump is on his way back to Washington after a 12-day, five-nation trip which he says has been “tremendously successful.” In a tweet, the president again said he would make big news upon his return. “I will be making a major statement from the @WhiteHouse upon my return to D.C. Time and date to be set.” The indications are the announcement will center on trade, an issue the president pressed on every stop of his trip to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. “Tremendous amounts of work was done on trade,” Trump told reporters traveling with him just before leaving the Philippines, “not only on the deals — and we have at least $300 billion worth of deals, but that will be, I think, way triple that number in a fairly short period of time.”
Trump also indicated he may delay the announcement until Thursday, in order to allow the exhausted press corps to recover from the grueling trip. “So I'm going to do that for the media. So maybe Wednesday afternoon or maybe Thursday morning, whichever is most convenient,” Trump said, just before Air Force One took off for the 22-hour flight back to D.C.
Good Tuesday 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, HOUSE VOTE ON NDAA: The National Defense Authorization Act is moving toward the finish line in Congress. The House is expected to take a final vote today on the $700 billion compromise version of the bill unveiled last week by a House-Senate conference committee. The bill, which authorizes more ships, aircraft and troops than Trump requested, is expected to pass overwhelmingly and then move to the Senate, where it is also likely to pass easily and be sent to the president. “I think it is important to send a message to the men and women who risk their lives for us that the institution of the Congress is functioning and supports them,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Armed Services chairman who spearheaded the bill, said. “I think it is also important to send a message to the world, adversaries and allies alike, that whatever differences we may have on taxes or other issues we … are willing to stand up and defend ourselves when threatened.”
The military would get 90 Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters, 24 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets and 14 new ships under the NDAA, plus $4 billion in additional missile defense upgrades requested by the Trump administration and increases in the troop strength of each service. You can see major highlights of the bill here. But remember, the $634.2 billion in total base defense spending in the NDAA still depends on Congress reaching an agreement to fund the policy bill by raising the $549 billion Budget Control Act cap for 2018. The bill’s $65.7 billion for overseas military operations is exempt from the limit. “As good as this bill is, it doesn’t get implemented in full unless we lift those budget caps and get an appropriations deal,” said Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Armed Services member. “As we sit here in mid-November, we are not there.” Without a deal by Dec. 8, lawmakers will face passing another stopgap budget measure, an outcome the Pentagon strongly opposes but is already being seriously discussed on Capitol Hill.
MORE PENTAGON NOMINEES: Another wave of nominees will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning at 10 after Sen. John McCain recently lifted his hold. The hearing includes testimony by Anthony Kurta who is nominated to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness; James McPherson to be Army general counsel; and Gregory Maggs to be a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Two more nominees are scheduled for a committee hearing Thursday.
SHANAHAN IN CANADA: Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan sets off today on his first official trip abroad, but he will not be going far. He is set to join top defense officials from 79 other countries in Vancouver for the annual U.N. Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial. Shanahan will also be making the rounds to judge military readiness back home, with visits to Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island just across the Canadian border in Washington state.
FREEZE-DRIED PLASMA: A decade-long impasse between the Defense Department and the Food and Drug Administration over freeze-dried plasma for wounded troops on the battlefield may be coming to a conclusion. “I think what we did legislatively is we forced the FDA to come to the table,” said Smith, the ranking House Armed Services member. The final National Defense Authorization Act unveiled last week includes a provision allowing DoD to sidestep the FDA and decide for itself whether the dry plasma, which does not require refrigeration, should be widely deployed with troops. The move sparked controversy on Capitol Hill and briefly held up the must-pass policy bill, but now DoD and FDA have reached a tentative agreement on the wording of legislation that could ease approval of the plasma. Leadership on both sides of the Hill are now working out the details of the deal, said Thornberry, the Armed Services chairman.
“Medics out on the battlefield are not able to have refrigerated plasma so that when somebody is wounded and starts bleeding out this freeze-dried plasma is the only thing to keep somebody from bleeding to death, and that’s how most people die on the battlefield,” Thornberry said. The French military has been manufacturing and using the dry plasma, which does not require refrigeration, since 1994 but it has never been approved by the FDA for U.S. military use beyond some special operations units. In 2010, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command went to the White House in an effort to get the plasma to troops, to no avail. “It was out of sheer frustration for troops bleeding out on the battlefield that brought this provision here,” Thornberry said.
THAT ‘SHORT AND FAT’ TWEET: Trump's tweet poking fun at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is "going to really upset" him, said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has dealt firsthand with North Korean officials in the past.
"The North Korea aspect of the trip was going decently until this tweet," Richardson told MSNBC's Kasie Hunt. "Yes, he's insulted the president, too. But the North Koreans are very sensitive to these kind of insults," added Richardson, who is also a former Democratic governor of New Mexico.
Richardson was reacting to Trump's sarcastic tweet, sent during his Asia tour: "Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?' Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!"
HONORING McCAIN: The Army is staging a special edition of its regular Twilight Tattoo to recognize Sen. John McCain for his more than 60 years of service to the nation and the U.S. Navy. Tonight’s military pageant at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall features soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own,” and is hosted by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Army Times: Army: No lower standards for recruits with history of mental illness
Wall Street Journal: EU agrees to boost military cooperation but doubts remain
BBC: Raqqa’s Dirty Secret
War on the Rocks: For Raqqa to heal, prioritize demining
USNI News: Study: Funding levels for Navy shipboard training remained flat for decades
Reuters: Strong earthquake hits Iraq and Iran, killing more than 450
New York Times: Security breach and spilled secrets have shaken the N.S.A. to its core
Foreign Policy: Our missile defenses go to 11
Defense One: Al-Qaeda has rebuilt itself—with Iran's help
AP: Could anyone stop Trump from launching nukes? The answer: No
Washington Post: US Ambassador Enters Fray Over Okinawa Base
CNN: U.S. general leads troops out of Puerto Rico
TUESDAY | NOV. 14
7:30 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 2101 Wilson Blvd. Robotics division quarterly meeting. ndia.org
8 a.m. 45425 Holiday Dr. Navy League board of directors meeting. navyleague.org
10 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Nomination hearing for Anthony Kurta to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness; James McPherson to be Army general counsel; and Gregory Maggs to be a Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. Dirksen 419. Authority to order the use of nuclear weapons with retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former head of U.S. Strategic Command. Foreign.senate.gov
11 a.m. Pentagon Briefing Room. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve briefs the media live from Baghdad on progress in the war against ISIS.
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Winter is coming: Russia, the Baltic states and U.S. policy in Europe. heritage.org
2 p.m Sustaining U.S. leadership against nuclear terrorism and proliferation: A conversation with Christopher Ford, special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation. hudson.org
2:30 p.m. Dirksen 419. American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, part 4: View from Beijing. Foreign.senate.gov
3:30 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A conversation with Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan, on the future of his country. csis.org
6:30 p.m. Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley host a Twilight Tattoo performance to recognize Sen. John McCain for over 63 years of dedicated service to the nation and the U.S. Navy.
WEDNESDAY | NOV. 15
7:30 a.m. 300 First St. SE. Breakfast series with Gen. Darren McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command. mitchellaerospacepower.org
8 a.m. 2401 M St. NW. Defense Writers Group breakfast with acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. centermediasecurity.org
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 45425 Holiday Dr. Navy League board of directors meeting. navyleague.org
9 a.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Kleptocratic regimes and national security: A pervasive threat and how it can be neutralized. hudson.org
10 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Prospects and challenges of building the 350-ship Navy with three former service secretaries. csis.org
10 a.m. Rayburn 2172. Hearing to mark up various bills. foreignaffairs.house.gov
2 p.m. Dirksen 419. Attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba: Response and oversight. foreign.senate.gov
4 p.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Book discussion of “Russia's Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.” atlanticcouncil.org
THURSDAY | NOV. 16
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017. logisticsymposium.org
8:30 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Sixth Annual Transatlantic Forum on Russia. csis.org
9 a.m. 1030 15th St. NW. Nuclear strategy and security in the second nuclear age conference. atlanticcouncil.org
9:30 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Strengthening military readiness: The role of military families in 21st century defense with Anthony Kurta, performing the duties of under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. brookings.edu
10 a.m. Dirksen G-50. Nomination hearing for John C. Rood to be under secretary of defense for policy and Randall G. Schriver to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. Senate Visitor Center 217. Closed hearing on new counter-terrorism guidance with Maj. Gen. Albert M. Elton II, Joint Staff deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism. foreign.senate.gov
5 p.m. 1957 E St. NW. Opportunities and challenges of a complex future: NATO ACT report launch with Gen. Denis Mercier, NATO supreme allied commander for transformation. atlanticcouncil.org
FRIDAY | NOV. 17
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017 with a keynote speech by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW. U.S.-Finland Defense and Security Industry Seminar. ndia.org
3 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A book talk with author Serhii Plokhy about “Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation.” csis.org
MONDAY | NOV. 20
12 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia's new zone of confrontation with Iran? hudson.org
TUESDAY | NOV. 21
2:30 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Kings and presidents: Whither the special relationship with Saudi Arabia? brookings.edu