TILLERSON’S LONELY MISSION: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had two big speaking events yesterday, the first aimed at an internal audience in Foggy Bottom, the other was a plea to a rogue regime on the other side of the world.
If Tillerson was a man weeks away from unemployment, he didn’t show it during a town hall meeting with State Department workers yesterday morning that was broadcast to embassies and missions around the world. He was relaxed as he fielded questions from career civil servants, many of whom are concerned about the downsizing of the department and the defection of some their discouraged co-workers.
Tillerson admitted that he doesn’t have much to show for his first year as America's top diplomat, but insisted he is not ready to hang it up and return to his ranch in Texas. “Do we have any wins to put on the board? No. That’s not the way this works. Diplomacy is not that simple,” Tillerson said. “The nature of diplomacy, though, is that we always are ready to sit and talk and engage with our friends, with our allies, but most importantly, with our adversaries.”
READY TO TALK: In the afternoon, Tillerson made good on his conviction, extending an olive branch to Kim Jong Un and saying he’s ready to negotiate over North Korea’s increasingly threatening nuclear weapons program. In a speech at the Atlantic Council, Tillerson said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face-to-face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards.”
TILLERSON’S TEXAS ETHOS: In his town hall, Tillerson also revealed a little bit about his negotiating style, which is anchored in the “Code of the West,” which he says he followed during his 41 years of global diplomacy in the private sector. “Your word is your bond. We don’t need a written contract, we don’t need a bunch of lawyers to figure it out. We’re going to shake hands on it and that’s good enough for me if it’s good enough for you,” Tillerson said. “That’s served me well for many, many years, and it serves me well today.”
He said he’d like to just sit down with Kim and take the measure of the man. “No one’s ever engaged with him. And he clearly is not like his father nor is he like his grandfather, and we don’t know a whole lot about what it will be like to engage with him,” Tillerson said. “I have to know who my counterpart is. I have to know something about them. I have to understand how do they process, how do they think. Because getting to an agreement, as all of us know, in negotiations means a willingness to talk about a lot of things. Let’s just put a lot of things on the table.”
NOT SO FAST: Tillerson said President Trump was fully on board with the no-precondition overture to Pyongyang. “It’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it,” Tillerson said, insisting “the president is very realistic about that as well.”
But a few hours later the White House appeared to undercut Tillerson again, when press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a “Statement in response to Secretary of State comments,” saying Trump's views on North Korea "have not changed." Trump has tweeted in the past that talks with the North are a waste of time. "North Korea is acting in an unsafe way not only toward Japan, China, and South Korea, but the entire world," Sanders said. "North Korea's actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea."
AFGHANISTAN OPTIMISM: A consistent message is coming out of Kabul from U.S. military commanders implementing the new strategy approved by Trump in August: This significant change, of course, has a real chance of succeeding. The latest general who was brimming with confidence is Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, who told Pentagon reporters yesterday, “This will be a very long winter for the Taliban.”
Bunch described the new authorities given U.S. commanders, including the ability to target Taliban drug labs as a game changer that has dramatically shifted the momentum in favor of Afghan forces in the past few months. “These are new efforts that have never been tried before in Afghanistan,” Bunch said. “These are new, the war has changed.”
AFGHANISTAN PESSIMISM: One former Afghanistan commander, retired Gen. David Petraeus, has some sage advice for the current crop of commanders: Take a breath and avoid adjectives such as “optimistic” or “winning.” Afghanistan, he told the “Off Message” podcast, can break your heart. “Its inevitable reality intrudes and can bite. The enemy gets a vote. Just when you think you are making real progress, all of a sudden, there’s some massive explosion somewhere, a suicide bombing, and it can rock you back on your heels.”
The Taliban may be suffering losses on the battlefield, but for the Trump strategy to succeed there needs to be a political reconciliation, and that requires elections that restore the confidence of Afghans in their government. New parliamentary and presidential elections are set for next summer, but they are once again embroiled in charges of corruption and malfeasance, reports the Washington Post. “But with the vote still eight months away, preparations have become poisoned by charges of political manipulation, ethnic bias, technical incompetence and endless delay. If the election falls apart, many Afghans fear that both the viability of their new democracy and the confidence of their international supporters will be in jeopardy,” the paper reports.
B-52 SETS BOMBING RECORD: In his briefing yesterday, Bunch casually mentioned that in one of the strikes on Taliban drug labs, a B-52 dropped the most number of precision munitions ever from a single Stratofortress by employing the new “conventional rotary launcher.”
The B-52s were flying out of the Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, explained that the B-52s from 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron were selected because they were the first to be outfitted with the conventional rotary launcher, which allowed the aircraft to carry eight additional precision-guided munitions in their internal weapon bays. “Combined with PGMs carried on the wing pylons, the CRL allowed the B-52 to carry more PGMs than any previous mission. These guided munitions allowed us to effectively destroy the targets while mitigating the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Pickart told the Washington Examiner. “This marks the first time the CRL has been used in a major operation.” You can see photos and video of the system here.
Good Wednesday 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 — TBI UPDATE: Experts will update Senate Armed Services members at 10 a.m. on the latest research, diagnoses and treatment for traumatic brain injury and concussions among troops. The two-panel hearing chaired by Sen. Thom Tillis includes testimony by Capt. Michael Colston, director of military health policy and oversight at the Pentagon, as well as experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Mayo Clinic and Wake Forest University.
MYSTERY ACCIDENT: The hearing comes as the U.S. military is reporting a serious “non-combat” vehicle accident in Afghanistan that killed one soldier, seriously injured two others, and sent six to the hospital to be checked for TBI. The Pentagon identified the soldier who died as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. David Thomas Brabander of Anchorage, Alaska, who was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based in Alaska. The Pentagon has declined to provide any details about the type of vehicle or the circumstances of the incident, saying it’s all under investigation.
PILOT HYPOXIA: At 3:30 this afternoon, the House Armed Services Committee is set to delve into the oxygen deprivation problems that have been plaguing military pilots. Members of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Mike Turner, will discuss an independent review of the Navy’s handling of the physiological events among pilots of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. There will be testimony from Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, head of Naval Air Systems Command, and Rear Adm. Sara Joyner, leader of the Navy Physiological Events Action Team.
CANADA DITCHES F/A-18 BUY IN TRADE SPAT: Canada is playing hardball in a trade dispute with Boeing, maker of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Ottawa has announced that it will not buy 18 brand new F/A-18s from Boeing, which has filed a trade complaint against Canadian plane maker Bombardier, and instead will purchase 18 previously owned F/A-18s from Australia. At the same time, Canada has opened the bidding process to replace its entire fleet of fighters, asking for proposals to provide the Canadian Air Force with 88 new advanced jets. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has hinted Boeing is unlikely to win the contract, while the complaint is unresolved.
NDAA SIGNED: Trump yesterday signed into law the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, a $700 billion defense policy bill that he said will help set in motion his promise to pursue a major military buildup. "This historic legislation demonstrates our unwavering commitment to our men and women in uniform — the greatest fighting force in the history of the world," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "This legislation represents a momentous step in rebuilding our military and securing our future for our children."
While the act sets policy, the actual funding comes from separate appropriations measure, which Congress is still wrestling with as it faces a Dec. 22 deadline to come up with a budget deal that raises congressionally-imposed spending caps. The current cap for baseline defense funding is $549 billion, well short of the $635 level set by the authorization act. The remaining $65 billion would be spent on overseas contingency operations, which is not subject to the caps.
"Now Congress must finish the job by eliminating the defense sequester and passing a clean appropriations bill," he said. "I think it's gonna happen. We need our military, it's gotta be perfecto."
McCAIN’S PLEA: The president was flanked by his defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, as he added his signature to the bill. Missing from the Roosevelt Room at the White House was Sen. John McCain, who has been using a wheelchair to get around Capitol Hill as he battles brain cancer.
“We must remember that the NDAA is only part of the solution to the problems facing our Armed Forces,” McCain said in a statement after signing ceremony. “The Congress and the White House must expeditiously work to negotiate a bipartisan budget agreement to secure this critical funding for our military instead of again forcing the Department of Defense to tread water by passing another Continuing Resolution. A multi-year budget agreement providing substantial, sustained growth in defense spending is the only way to give our men and women in uniform the resources they need to keep us safe.”
‘TENS OF THOUSANDS’ NEED TRANSGENDER TRAINING: The Pentagon has laid out its courtroom argument for delaying transgender recruiting beyond Jan. 1 and it partly comes down to a training crunch. The Pentagon needs to prepare more than 23,000 personnel to begin accepting the Defense Department's first transgender recruits next month following a court order, Lernes Hebert, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, said in a Washington, D.C., district court filing. About 20,300 are recruiters and about 2,700 others work at military entrance processing stations, or MEPS. The Trump administration has argued the military is not prepared and used the stats in its effort to get a federal court to grant an emergency delay in the Jan. 1 recruiting deadline.
Hebert warned that transgender applicants might not get adequate screening if the Pentagon is forced into recruiting them without “sufficient guidance, resources and training” and the new troops might not be prepared to fight. But opponents of the ban, including former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, have argued that there is not much left for the Pentagon to do. “Based on my personal knowledge, the services had already completed almost all of the necessary preparation for lifting the accession ban when I left office almost a year ago,” Mabus told the D.C. court in his own filing opposing the administration’s request for a recruiting delay.
LEGAL WHIRLWIND: It may be hard to keep track of Trump’s transgender military service ban amid the dizzying series of recent legal developments. Yesterday, the Justice Department filed yet another motion, this time in Maryland district court, in an effort to delay the Jan. 1 first date for transgender recruiting. The night before, it filed an emergency appeal in the D.C. court attempting the same. The administration is essentially fighting early legal battles in four federal civil suits that have yet to go to trial and trying to defeat preliminary injunctions granted by judges in the cases. The injunctions block Trump from moving forward with his ban while the cases are heard. Here’s what you need to know:
Lawsuits: Four civil lawsuits have been filed in D.C., Maryland, California and Washington state district courts.
Plaintiffs: All the cases include active-duty transgender troops as plaintiffs. Other plaintiffs include people who want to join the military, and rights groups, which are also providing legal representation.
Defendants: Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Top military officials and the Defense Department are also named in some cases.
Injunctions: Preliminary injunctions issued by judges at the outset of a lawsuit can block plaintiffs or defendants from taking further action until the case is resolved. It is also an indication the judge believes one side may prevail. District judges so far have granted plaintiffs’ request for injunctions in three of the four transgender lawsuits — D.C., Maryland and Washington state — and an injunction ruling in the remaining California case is expected any day.
Stays: The administration has the option of appealing injunctions, but that appeals process may not be complete by Jan. 1. Its other legal option is a stay, a legal move that can quickly block all or part of an injunction. A D.C. judge rejected the administration’s stay request Monday, but it has already appealed. It also filed for a stay in the Maryland case. No word yet on a stay in the Washington state injunction, but that could quickly change.
IS RUSSIA REALLY LEAVING? Pentagon officials this week expressed some skepticism about whether Russia’s announcement of a significant withdrawal of its forces in Syria will come to pass. A spokesman noted Monday that Russia’s actions often don’t match its words. “There have been no meaningful reductions in combat troops following Russia's previous announcements planned departures from Syria,” Col. Rob Manning said in an email to Pentagon reporters.
The Institute for the Study of War has a similar cautious analysis. “Russia will refocus its air campaign against opposition forces in Western Syria despite its announcement of a partial military withdrawal from Syria,” ISW said in its latest report. The report quotes Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin, the Russian Armed Forces commander in Syria, as saying the planned withdrawal will include 23 fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopter gunships as well as select detachments of special forces, military police and field engineers. “Russia has previously used claims of partial withdrawals in order to rotate out select units for refit-and-repair, remove redundant capabilities, and reinsert alternative weapons systems better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations,” the report notes.
TOUGH ON RUSSIA: In response to questions about the new National Security Strategy, to be unveiled Monday, Sanders said yesterday that the Trump administration has been “been very hard on Russia from the beginning.” Sanders was responding to remarks by national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster earlier in the day in which McMaster was critical of Moscow's actions. “Gen. McMaster certainly is someone who understands and knows the president's feelings and our relationships with foreign partners, and something that we certainly feel confident in him speaking about,” Sanders said.
Trump reluctantly signed a Russia sanctions bill in August, though he called it “seriously flawed” and issued a signing statement saying it only “purports” to impose certain rules the president can ignore. Many of the provisions have yet to be implemented.
“There have been sanctions, we’ve increased energy exportation from this country, and we’ve done things to put pressure on Russia, asking them to engage in a bigger and greater way on some of the common enemies we face,” Sanders said.
SOMALIA STRIKE: The U.S. military launched an airstrike against al-Shabaab in Somalia early yesterday morning, destroying a vehicle filled with explosives that posed an imminent threat to the people of Mogadishu, according to U.S. Africa Command.
The airstrike was done in coordination with the Somali government and was against an al-Shabaab vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. The strike took place southwest of Mogadishu, according to AFRICOM, which said no civilians were killed.
LESS ICE, MORE ARCTIC OCEAN: The warming trend in the Arctic resulted in the “second warmest air temperatures, above average ocean temperatures, loss of sea ice, and a range of human, ocean and ecosystem effects” in 2017, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic Report Card was released yesterday at the American Geophysical Union's annual fall meeting in New Orleans. The NOAA-sponsored study included the work of 85 scientists from 12 nations and is peer-reviewed.
“The rapid and dramatic changes we continue to see in the Arctic present major challenges and opportunities,” retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, the acting NOAA administrator, told reporters. “This year’s Arctic Report Card is a powerful argument for why we need long-term sustained Arctic observations to support the decisions that we will need to make to improve the economic well-being for Arctic communities, national security, environmental health and food security.”
Real Clear Defense: Cruise Missiles – A Greater Threat Than North Korea’s Ballistic Missiles
Washington Post: Military spending bill provision reduces deportation risk for immigrant recruits
Defense News: Lawmakers ask US vice president to back space-based missile defense
Reuters: Trump signs into law U.S. government ban on Kaspersky Lab software
AP: Men due to leave Gitmo under Obama seem stuck under Trump
Foreign Policy: The Walking Dead
Defense One: The Contractor that Hired Russian Coders for a Pentagon Project Has Struck a Deal with Prosecutors
New York Times: News Analysis: Afghan President’s Critics Losing Patience Over Delayed Vote
Daily Beast: Feds: Jailed Terrorist Used Prosecutor Materials for ISIS Propaganda Ring
Navy Times: Navy to resume role in SOUTHCOM anti-drug mission
DoD Buzz: Boeing Wins Contract to Develop Lasers for Drones
Politico: Global U.S. military presence questioned
Wall Street Journal: Areas Newly Seized From ISIS Seen at Risk of Backsliding
Defense Tech: Marine Corps Wants Hundreds More Small Boats for Coastal Operations
Military Times: Trump announces pick for nuclear weapons czar
WEDNESDAY | DEC. 13
8 a.m. 1800 Jefferson Davis Hwy. Special topic breakfast with Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard. navyleague.org
8:30 a.m. 2425 Wilson Blvd. Hot Topic: Army Cyber professional development forum with Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, commanding general of U.S. Army Cyber Command. ausa.org
9:30 a.m. Dirksen 419. Using force: Strategic, political and legal considerations with Stephen Hadley, Christine Wormuth and John Bellinger. foreign.senate.gov
10 a.m. Russell 222. Update on research, diagnosis and treatment for traumatic brain injury and concussion in service members. Armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. 2425 Wilson Blvd. Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, U.S. Special Operations Commander, provides keynote remarks an Association of the U.S. Army Hot Topic event on cyber operations Arlington, Virginia. Streamed live at www.defense.gov/live.
10 a.m. Senate Visitor Center 217. Closed subcommittee hearing on Department of Defense global counterterrorism operations with Maj. General Albert Elton II, Joint Staff deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism, and Mark Mitchell, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. armed-services.senate.gov
1 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Ballistic missile defense: Evolving threats and new priorities with Rear Adm. Jon Hill, deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency. csis.org
1:30 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. CORDS at 50: A model of civil-military collaboration? csis.org
1:45 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The future of combating terrorism and countering the use of WMD: A Conversation with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke. hudson.org
3:30 p.m. Rayburn 2118. Addressing physiological episodes in fighter, attack and training aircraft Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, and Rear Adm. Sara Joyner.
6 p.m. 1250 S Hayes St. Aerospace Industries Association Lyman award dinner. aia-aerospace.org
THURSDAY | DEC. 14
7 a.m. 901 17th St. NW. S&ET executive breakfast. ndia.org
9:30 a.m. 1501 Lee Highway. Mitchell Hour on the operational National Guard, a unique and capable component of the joint force with Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. mitchellaerospacepower.org
10 a.m. Dirksen G-50 U.S. Policy and strategy in the Middle East. armed-services.senate.gov
10 a.m. Senate Visitor Center 217. Closed briefing on new counter-terrorism guidance with Maj. General Albert Elton II, Joint Staff deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism, and Andrew Knaggs, deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and counterterrorism. foreign.senate.gov
11:30 a.m. 1250 S. Hayes St. Aerospace Industries Association media luncheon. aia-aerospace.org
12:30 p.m. 525 New Jersey Ave. NW. CNAS event: Toward a common North Korea strategy with Rep. Ami Bera. cnas.org
6:30 p.m. 1777 F St. NW.D.C. Foreign Affairs November/December Issue Launch Guest Event: America's Forgotten Wars. cfr.org
FRIDAY | DEC. 15
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Defeating terrorism in the age of Trump with Sebastian Gorka. heritage.org
6:30 p.m. 1301 S. Joyce St. Military Reporters & Editors Association networking event with Brig. Gen. Seely, Marine Corps communications director. militaryreporters.org
TUESDAY | DEC. 19
9 a.m. 15th St. NW. Making Peace in Donbas? The Role of a Peacekeeping Mission with Ambassador Kurt Volker. atlanticcouncil.org