GAME ON, BACK OFF: On an unseasonably temperate August day in Washington, you could feel the temperature lowering just a bit in the confrontation with Pyongyang. While both sides are still talking tough, and often past each other, North Korea seemed to blink in the face of President Trump's threats of massive retaliation for any new threat against the U.S.

In another of his short-notice drop-ins on reporters who regularly hang out in the Pentagon’s C-Ring “correspondent’s corridor,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it’s “game on” if North Korea fires missiles at Guam. “If they shoot at the United States, I'm assuming they hit the United States. If they do that, then it's game on,” Mattis said. “I think if they fire at the United States, it could escalate into war very quickly, yes. That's called war, if they shoot at us.”

But at the same time, Mattis urged the media not to portray him as spoiling for a fight. “Let's not do this, OK, folks? Let's not start saying, ‘General Mattis said it's war,’ ‘Secretary Mattis said it's war,’ ” the secretary said in his back-and-forth with reporters yesterday afternoon. “War is up to the president, perhaps up to the Congress. The bottom line is we will defend the country from an attack. It's not that I'm over here, you know, Dr. Strangelove, you know, doing things like that, OK?”

Mattis said the U.S. would know within moments if a missile fired from North Korea is on a trajectory to hit Guam, the U.S. mainland, or any of its allies. And if that’s the case, “We'll take it out.” But what if missiles land near Guam, miles offshore, as North Korea has threatened? Mattis said he’s not going to tell North Korea how close it can get to Guam without drawing a military response. “You don't shoot at people in this world, unless you want to bear the consequences. OK? All right.”

DUNFORD IN BEIJING: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford is in China today, second stop on his Asia trip aimed at reassuring allies and strengthening military ties. Yesterday in South Korea, Dunford also said the president will decide how to respond if missiles fly toward Guam. "What we would do in the event of an attack on Guam — or missiles being launched towards Guam — is a decision that will … be made by the president of the United States and he will make that in the context of our alliance," Dunford said. “The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort. We are seeking peaceful resolution to the crisis right now."

Dunford meets with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, in Beijing today, before heading to Tokyo, the final stop on his trip.

FOOLISH, STUPID YANKEES: Yet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does appear to be stepping back from his threat to launch missiles into the waters near Guam, although it’s hard to decipher the flowery and grandiloquent language used by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The KCNA account says that during an inspection tour of his strategic forces, Kim reviewed the plan produced Gen. Kim Rak Gyom, and pronounced it “a close and careful plan.” Kim said he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees,” but also warned that “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of the DPRK, the latter will make an important decision as it already declared.”

POSSIBLE FLASHPOINT: It’s not clear what sign Kim is looking for from the United States, but if he’s expecting the U.S. to cancel or scale back its annual “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian” military exercises, he will be disappointed. The 10-day joint military exercises with South Korea begin next week and involve tens of thousands of U.S. and ROK troops on land, sea and air. The U.S. stresses that the long-planned exercises, which run Aug. 21-31, are purely defensive. North Korea seemed to be referring to the exercises when it said, “If the planned fire of power demonstration is carried out as the U.S. is going more reckless, it will be the most delightful historic moment when the Hwasong artillerymen will wring the windpipes of the Yankees and point daggers at their necks,” according to KCNA.

THAT MATTIS-TILLERSON OP-ED: Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were on the same page yesterday, namely the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Mattis says the joint opinion piece was planned weeks ago, and was designed to show the Pentagon and the State Department speak with one voice on North Korea. “It's not one or the other, it's the two working together, the DoD buttressing State, State in the lead, and we just wanted to lay this out in a national forum,” Mattis said yesterday.

“You can't just send public affairs officers out. We live in the Information Age, and part of having a public responsibility is having a public voice,” said the notoriously camera-averse Mattis. “We made the decision some weeks ago… it happened to have come out at this point.”

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: Maybe we’ll find out what Trump meant when he tweeted this last night: “Leaving for New York City and meetings on military purchases and trade.”

LOCKHEED SPECIAL OPS CONTRACT: Lockheed Martin said it has been named the prime contractor on a decade-long, $8 billion contract to serve special operations forces around the world. It is U.S. Special Operations Command’s largest service contract, according to Lockheed, which was awarded the previous contract in 2010. The company will do maintenance and modification of weapons platforms and equipment, manage the special ops supply chain, and provide infrastructure supply such as computer and cyber networks.

McCAIN BACKS McMASTER: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain yesterday called on Trump to denounce new attacks on his White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster. "The recent attacks upon him from the so-called ‘alt-right' are disgraceful," McCain said in a statement. "Since this fringe movement cannot attract the support of decent Americans, it resorts to impugning the character of a good man and outstanding soldier who has served honorably in uniform and sacrificed more for our country than any of his detractors ever have.

"I hope the president will once again stand up for his national security adviser and denounce these repugnant attacks, which arise from the same purveyors of hatred and ignorance who precipitated the recent violence in Charlottesville," McCain said.

TRANSGENDER CONFUSION: In speaking with reporters yesterday, Mattis was very cagey about the next steps regarding the status of transgender troops currently serving in the military, and seemed to leave the door open to a policy that would allows transgender troops to serve in some capacity despite the unambiguous total ban announced by Trump.

The president’s July tweets seemed to leave no wiggle room. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.’

But Mattis said the Pentagon is working with the White House on the new policy and he won’t presuppose the outcome. “I'm going to wait until the president comes in,” Mattis said. “White House staff is working it. I've got my people over there in the room to give them any military background that they might need, to inform them, but they write their own policy, of course.”

Mattis all but confirmed he was not consulted about the total ban on transgender troops, which was announced by the president while Mattis was on vacation. “I knew the issue was bubbling in Washington,” said Mattis, who was in the middle of a review to get hard data about the impact of transgender service on military readiness. “I'd taken, inside the department, steps on it, but, as far as more broadly, that was the president's call.”

As for the new policy, Mattis wouldn’t say if it would require the discharge of transgender troops. “The fact is we have received no direction that would indicate any harm to anybody right now,” Mattis said. “The policy is going to address whether or not transgenders can serve under what conditions, what medical support they require, how much time would they be perhaps non-deployable, leaving others to pick up their share of everything.” Asked point blank if that meant he was open to allowing transgender troops to continue serving in the U.S. military, Mattis said, “I'm saying we're going to study the issue.”

OUT OF THE LOOP: The transgender policy is not the only Trump pronouncement that has taken the Pentagon by surprise. Yesterday, the brand new director of press operations, Col. Rob Manning, was struggling to explain what military option the Pentagon had for Venezuela, after the president’s Friday statement. At first, Manning said the U.S. military had a “range of options,” to deal with the political crisis in the South American country. But when pressed by reporters, Manning could not say what objective the options might be designed to achieve. “I can’t speculate what that is, because we haven’t been asked to provide any options, so I couldn’t speculate.”

The Pentagon objected to our characterization of the Defense Department as having no idea what the president had in mind when he said Friday, “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.” "The U.S. maintains a wide variety of military options for a range of potential contingency operations. The department does not discuss the specifics of potential future military operations for reasons of operational security and force protection,” said Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

SOLDIERS DIED IN MISHAP: Two U.S. soldiers who died in northern Iraq on Sunday were killed by an artillery mishap while firing on an Islamic State mortar position, Manning said. They were identified as Sgt. Roshain Euvince Brooks, 30, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Spc. Allen Levi Stigler Jr., 22, of Arlington, Texas. Both were assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

The soldiers died after being evacuated by air along with five other soldiers who were part of the same Army artillery section and suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the incident. The Army is part of a U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces trying to defeat remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters in the north of the country. Manning said the incident is under investigation and no further details on what caused the mishap were available.

A LITTLE HELP FROM THE USSR? North Korea made an abrupt advance in its nuclear weapons program with the help of Soviet-era missile technology, according to a leading arms control analyst. "[T]he former Soviet Union [is] the most likely source," Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in a new report.

Elleman based that assessment on photos of the new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, which appear to be a direct match for one particular Soviet missile engine known as the RD-250. The engine was manufactured by a company in Ukraine that "has been near financial collapse" due to the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, but there are also "almost certainly hundreds, if not more," of the engines scattered throughout the former Soviet Union.

"Clearly, there is no shortage of potential routes through which North Korea might have acquired the few dozen RD-250 engines that would be needed for an ICBM program," Elleman wrote.

MORE IRANIAN SHENANIGANS: An Iranian drone made several passes near the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on Sunday, marking the second unsafe interaction between the carrier and an Iranian drone in a week. Cmdr. Bill Urban, spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, told the Washington Examiner the Iranian QOM-1/Sadegh-1 "conducted an unsafe and unprofessional approach" of the aircraft carrier, which was operating in the central Persian Gulf.

The Nimitz made repeated radio calls to establish communications with the drone, but the aircraft's controlling station did not respond, Urban said. The drone also did not use any aircraft navigation lights when it made "several passes" near the Nimitz and its escort ships during active flight operations. Urban said the Iranian drone flew within 1,000 feet of the aircraft carrier.

PRIVATIZE AFGHANISTAN PLAN: Mattis said all options for a new strategy in Afghanistan remain on the table, and confirmed that means Trump is weighing the use of a private security force to stabilize the war-torn country. "It's part of the options being considered and the president's open to the advice of the secretary of state and myself and the director of the CIA," Mattis said. “I'll just tell you that we are very, very close on this.”

Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, floated the idea of up to 5,500 security contractors and a private air force of 90 aircraft. Mattis, McMaster and others have proposed an overhauled Afghanistan strategy that includes more attention to Pakistan and 3,000-4,000 additional U.S. troops.

But finalizing the plan has been delayed because Trump is unhappy with his options in the nearly 16-year-old conflict, questioning at one point whether the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, should be fired. Mattis says Trump’s national security team is continuing to hone various options being presented to the president. "We're sharpening each one of the options," Mattis said. "You can see the pluses and minuses of each one so that there's no longer any new data you are going to get. Now, just make the decision. There's the options."

WORK LANDS AT RAYTHEON: Former Defense Secretary Robert Work has been elected to Raytheon’s board of directors, the company announced Monday. "Bob is well known in both the public and private sectors for his significant expertise in global security matters, most especially in the areas of defense strategy, advanced technologies, international studies and acquisition reform," said Thomas Kennedy, Raytheon Company Chairman and CEO. "In an era of rapid technological and geopolitical change, Bob's vision and expertise will serve us well as we continue to shape our company for future success."

Work was supposed to leave the Pentagon at the end of the Obama administration, but agreed to stay on during the transition and left the job one month ago. He was replaced by former Boeing executive Pat Shanahan. As Defense News points out, Work praised Raytheon’s missile-making capability in December after touring a plant. “They have great ideas, and it was really good to see they are all in on the Third Offset [Strategy] and that type of thinking is starting to inform the way they are thinking about improvements to their missiles. So that was really impressive.”

THE RUNDOWN

Reuters: Venezuela's Maduro calls for military exercises after Trump threat

USA Today: U.S. missile defense system is effective but not foolproof against North Korea

Real Clear Defense: Trump’s About-Face On Missile Defense Validates Critics

Wall Street Journal: Seoul Warns U.S. Against Unilateral Military Action Against North Korea

Reuters: Ukraine Denies Selling Missile Technology To North Korea

New York Times: Chinese Quest For Technology Is Aimed At Future Dominance

Foreign Policy: With Obama gone, Trump Pentagon resumes major Egyptian war game

New York Times: Following ‘fire and fury,’ Trump looks to ease tensions in Asia

War on the Rocks: When should the president use nuclear weapons?

Defense News: Air Force looks toward lessening F-35 flight restrictions at Luke AFB

Seapower Magazine: Navy Looks At Accelerating Super Hornet Transitions

Navy Times: Navy Quickens Pace For Ship Systems Overhauls

Defense One: When Amazon meets defense acquisition

CNN: What can Trump do about Venezuela?

UPI: USS John C. Stennis departs for sea trials early after overhaul

Calendar

TUESDAY | AUG. 15

1 p.m. 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW. CatoConnects: A peek into North Korea. cato.org

WEDNESDAY | AUG. 16

8 a.m. 1201 M St. SE. NDIA Systems Engineering Division meeting. ndia.org

8:30 a.m. 2121 Crystal Dr. Trusted micro electronics workshop. ndia.org