Welcome to 2019! And good luck to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who “has less experience in government (a year and a half) or the military (none) than any defense secretary since an oil magnate served as the acting head of the Pentagon for several weeks during Watergate 45 years ago,” writes The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman.
Mattis out: If you’re just tuning back into the news after a well-deserved holiday break, hold on tight: Dec. 19: Trump says he’ll order all U.S. ground troops out of Syria “now” (later clarified as “30 days”; still later modified to one year; more on this below). Dec. 20: SecDef Mattis resigns, effective end of February. Dec. 23: Trump, perhaps having been briefed on Mattis’ scathing resignation letter, orders Shanahan to take the reins on Dec. 31.
Meet the new boss, unlike the old boss: Under Mattis, Shanahan viewed his deputy job as “chief operating officer” — responsible for executing strategy and policy, not developing it. What foreign-policy views he has appear to have been shaped by his famously well-read boss. “Much of Pat’s view of the world has been formed by his relationship with Jim Mattis,” says retired Boeing exec Jim Albaugh, who oversaw Shanahan as he became “Mr. Fix-It” in the company’s defense and commercial divisions.
Will he stand up to Trump? As deputy, Shanahan extolled the strategic shift to great-power competition, and echoed Mattis’ line on the importance of the conflict of Syria. Yet in his reporting, Friedman was struck by the fact “that even those close to Shanahan weren’t sure how to answer when I asked what his firm foreign-policy views are, beyond pointing to his efforts to ensure that the U.S. military has a competitive edge and is ready for combat.” Read on, here.
How long will Shanahan keep the top job? Maybe a “a long time,” Trump suggested. He can stay “up to 210 days, according to federal law, before a Senate-confirmation is required,” writes D1’s Kevin Baron. “But if Shanahan is nominated to fill the post permanently, he could face stiff headwinds on Capitol Hill. Although he has already received Senate confirmation for his current post of deputy, his lack of military and government experience, and any discernible foreign-policy vision, will not reassure lawmakers shaken by Mattis’ departure. The Pentagon’s policy staff under Trump has been precariously thin and inexperienced, and several key staffers to the secretary quit their posts after November’s midterm elections.” Read on, here.
This just in from Reuters’ Idrees Ali: “David Norquist, the Pentagon comptroller, will perform the duties of deputy defense secretary, a U.S. official says.”
Shutdown watch: It’s been 12 days since Trump, who announced that he would “proudly” shut down part of the federal government, including non-essential parts of DHS and the Coast Guard, if Congress didn’t give him money to extend fencing along America’s border with Mexico.
No end in sight: The latest offer from Democrats isn’t expected to get GOP approval. Read about it, here.
From Defense One
Goodbye. Mattis. Goodbye, Syria. Hello, 2019 // Defense One Staff: Dramatic shifts abound as Trump puts US military’s war plans in doubt, Democrats resurge in Congress, and the Pentagon gets a new boss.
Meet the New (Acting) US Defense Secretary // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: With no military experience and just a year and a half in government, the former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan has yet to develop a foreign-policy vision of his own.
Vladimir Putin’s Busy, Bloody, and Expensive 2019 // Patrick Tucker: Russia experts look at recent events and peer into the future.
The Biggest Nuclear Threats of 2018 Will Follow Us into the New Year // Joe Cirincione: We whistled past the graveyard this year. Let’s be smarter in 2019.
Hard-Nosed Pentagon Negotiator Removed From Job; Racked Up Huge Travel Costs // Marcus Weisgerber: Shay Assad also backed a controversial plan to slow payments to defense contractors.
Defense One Radio, Ep. 34 // Defense One Staff: What we learned in 2018: about averting war with North Korea.
A Giant Repair Job Awaits the First Post-Trump SecDef // Brent Colburn: It will be a rebuilding project the likes of which has not been seen since the Vietnam War.
Defense One Radio, Ep. 33. // Defense One Staff: What we learned in 2018: What’s ahead for Syria + why ISIS is not defeated yet.
The Kurds Have Been Betrayed Again by Washington // Joost Hiltermann, The Atlantic: Time and again, powerful allies on whose support they thought they could rely abandoned them.
US Spies Want to Know How to Spot Compromised AI // Dave Gershgorn, Quartz: What if you were training an AI, and an adversary slipped a few altered images into its study set?
Trump Kicks Mattis Out Early, Names Shanahan Acting Defense Secretary // Marcus Weisgerber and Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The abrupt decision comes amid a growing crescendo of criticism of the president’s snap decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
On Monday, Russia announced an American had been detained in Moscow “while on a spy mission.” The American, former Marine and Iraq vet Paul Whelan, was in town for a wedding, his family told CNN. He was even acting as a tour guide to other Americans at the Kremlin for this wedding, which sounds problematic. (Then again, we’ve never been to the Kremlin.)
Whelan’s occupation back in the states: “director of global security for Michigan-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner, where he has worked a few years, the company said Tuesday.”
He’d reportedly been to Russia many times previously without incident; he even maintained a social media profile on Russia’s VK. He was apparently in the country six days before Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, arrested him “on suspicion of espionage.”
Worth noting: “Whelan’s arrest came 15 days after alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in US federal court, as part of a deal with prosecutors, to trying to infiltrate Republican political circles and influence US relations with Russia before and after the 2016 presidential election,” CNN writes. More here.
Reminder: Russia still has 24 Ukrainian sailors in detention. France and Germany are still pressing the issue, AP reports.
The U.S. military now has four months to pull out of Syria — pretty much a year after Trump initially said it would happen, The New York Times reported Monday.
The quick read: Trump privately told the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, that the Pentagon could have several months for a safe and orderly withdrawal, two U.S. officials told the Times. That was essentially backed up by recent public remarks from Sen. Lindsey Graham, fresh off a trip of his own to President Trump.
One big concern: Where to move U.S. equipment in the region — leave it behind with allies, or disable what’s left to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Syrian government or Russia or Iran, or ISIS, or children or the list goes on and on? The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Kesling dug into this concern — making a stopover in Israel — in his recent (paywalled) report you can find, here.
One thing that appears to be changing: Two new U.S. bases in Iraq. (h/t @DavidMWitty1)
Another wildcard, always close by: “Trump could change his mind at any moment and speed up the [Syrian] departure.” More from the Times, here.
By the way: Turkey is reportedly sending reinforcements to the border with Syria, Bloomberg writes this morning. Recall that Turkish President Recep Erdogan convinced President Trump to remove all U.S. forces from Syria and Turkey would kill the remaining ISIS fighters there. That was the decision that caused Mattis to quit, along with Trump’s ISIS war envoy, Brett McGurk. With the U.S. military and State Department personnel now not apparently pulling out by mid-January, Turkey would seem to need to keep up the appearance of pressure against unsavory Kurdish and ISIS elements in the region.
Ankara has been moving “tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers to the border for weeks,” Bloomberg writes, “as Turkey’s army prepares to escalate its involvement in Syria after capturing the northwestern towns of Jarablus from Islamic State and Afrin from Kurdish forces,” including moving “closer to the strategic town of Manbij,” where they want U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters out as soon as possible. Bit more, here.
See also: This video report from Manbij, where “locals fear an attack on the Kurdish-controlled city from Turkey,” via AFP.
Afghanistan has postponed its presidential elections three months — from April to now July. AP has a bit more, here.
The Afghan Taliban traveled to Iran this past weekend as 2018’s diplomatic mood over the Afghan war continues into 2019, Voice of America reported. According to the Taliban at that meeting, their troops completely control 61 of 407 districts across Afghanistan. According to SIGAR, that number is closer to 49. The Long War Journal puts it at 52. More from VOA, here.
Good question: What’s gonna happen to all those U.S. exercise facilities put up across Afghanistan? Stars and Stripes investigated around Herat, where treadmills are still wrapped in plastic, here.
ICYMI: POTUS45 visited troops in Baghdad this holiday. Task & Purpose has one SEAL-heavy take, here.
In memoriam: Remember all 23 service members who were killed this year while serving from Africa to Afghanistan, via NBC News’ Hans Nichols.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un says it’s back to square one on the question of denuclearization, the New York Times reports.
The gist: If the U.S. keeps its sanctions on Pyongyang, the North will keep its nuclear program.
Dive deeper on what Kim said — what’s new, what’s different — via MIT’s Vipin Narang, Joshua Pollack of The Nonproliferation Review, or The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda.
Tough talk on Taiwan from China’s Xi Jinping on this, the 40-year anniversary of U.S.-China relations. According to Reuters’ take on Xi’s remarks today, “China reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but will strive to achieve peaceful ‘reunification.’”
The venue and occasion: Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the 40th anniversary of a landmark Taiwan policy statement.
A Chinese admiral wants to sink two U.S. aircraft carriers, according to a report from Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
The officer: Rear Admiral Lou Yuan, and his remarks were delivered on December 20 at an event called the 2018 Military Industry List summit.
Condition for war: “Those who are trying to stir up trouble in the South China Sea and Taiwan should be careful about their future,” Lou said. “As long as the US doesn’t attack China-built islands and reefs in the South China Sea, no war will take place in the area.” Read on, here.
Par for the course in his speech: “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Lou said. He also highlighted the fairly well-known anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles the Chinese navy has — missiles “more than capable of hitting US carriers.”
One more thing: Lou also claimed there are “five cornerstones of the United States” that can be exploited — America’s military, America’s money, America’s talent, America’s voting system, and America’s fear of adversaries. Think he’s right?
Apropos of nothing: Hats off to all the sailors out there. That’s what we’re thinking after glimpsing this cozy or claustrophobic snapshot of a bunk on board a Los Angeles-class submarine. (h/t @KingNeptune767)
And finally to begin this new year: Humans in Arizona are attacking autonomous vehicles with rocks and knives, slashing tires, and even drawing a gun on one vehicle, the New York Times reported over the break.
The victims, as it were: Waymo, the driverless-car company spun out of Google. There have been “nearly two dozen attacks on driverless vehicles over the past two years in Chandler, a city near Phoenix where Waymo started testing its vans in 2017.”
Thing is, these autonomous projects need to beta-test somehow; problem is, one vehicle has already killed a human during testing in Arizona. Continue reading, here.