SitRep: Iranian, North Korean and American Nukes All Under Review

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SitRep: Iranian, North Korean and American Nukes All Under Review

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Iran day. Today’s the day President Donald Trump decides whether to again waive economic sanctions against Iran, something he’s expected to do for the second time in his presidency despite a professed hatred of the 2015 deal with Tehran that halted that country’s nuclear program.  

But even if Trump waives sanctions, he’ll face another choice on Oct. 15 when he’ll have to decide whether Iran is fully complying with its commitments under the deal.

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello notes that the deal is “coming under increasing attack,” and “administration officials appear to be laying the groundwork to kill the existing agreement, possibly by finding a way to reopen it for modifications.”

The AP: “Administration officials say Trump is ready to extend the waivers and that no serious alternatives have been presented. But they cautioned that Trump could still change his mind, and they said he remains determined to ‘decertify’ Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal by a separate, mid-October deadline — a finding that would jeopardize further sanctions relief.

Experts say keep Iran deal. More than 80 disarmament experts have urged Trump to reconsider scuttling the agreement with Iran, issuing a joint statement saying the 2015 deal was a “net plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.”

North Korea. The North Korean regime’s test of a nuclear weapon earlier this month may have been larger than previously thought, according to one group of experts. Estimates of the bomb’s yield have ranged from South Korea’s 50 kilotons to Japan’s 160 kilotons, but a new analysis by 38 North, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, points to a blast that could have been about 250 kilotons.

Before and after. High resolution synthetic aperture radar imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site shows the aftermath of the North’s nuke test.

Mattis on U.S. nukes. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will receive classified briefings at Strategic Command near Omaha, Nebraska that will inform the “nuclear posture review,” a full accounting of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, ordered by president Trump in January. He told reporters traveling with him that the review is nearly done, but wouldn’t provide a target date.  

One thing he did say, however, was that his thinking on the U.S. nuclear arsenal has changed. In 2015, as a private citizen, he said that the U.S. could do away with intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. But on Wednesday he said the U.S. must keep all three parts — submarine, air, and land-based nuclear capable missiles — of its nuclear force, rather than eliminate one, as he once suggested.

“I’ve questioned the triad,” Mattis said Wednesday, but “I cannot solve the deterrent problem reducing it from a triad. If I want to send the most compelling message, I have been persuaded that the triad in its framework is the right way to go,” Mattis said.

Cost. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the total cost of upgrading the nation’s nuclear bombers, submarines and missiles will clock in at around $400 billion through the year 2026 — a tall order given current budget constraints. “There’s a way to do cost savings within even a triad,” Mattis said. “I’m looking at each element very critically. Nothing is going to just be, ‘Well we approved the air-delivered weapons.’ I want to look at each one. I want to look at each part of the submarines. I want to look at each part of the ICBM force.”

War authorization. Sen Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) attempt to force the Senate to debate war authorization authorities for the president failed on Wednesday, 61-36. Paul’s amendment to the 2018 defense spending authorization bill sought to sunset the 2001 and 2003 authorizations aimed at al Qaeda that the White House now uses to cover the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and al Shabab in Somalia, leading many to believe its time for Congress to assert its traditional power over war-making authorities.

Syria. U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria say their mission to train and equip local Kurdish and Arab forces to fight ISIS is working, according to a report by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who visited a training base in northern Syria. “It is a dream SF mission,” one U.S. soldier said.

“There will be bumps and hiccups, but the model I see unfolding before me — as the noose tightens on Raqqa and more terrain is liberated and the Raqqa Internal Security Forces come in behind and take over some of those zones —  is working,” said the senior U.S. special operations forces commander near the city of Kobani.

Iraq. Israel became the first country to back the push by Kurds in northern Iraq to hold an independence referendum scheduled for later this month, FP’s Rhys Dubin reports.

Kapersky. Federal government agencies are banned from using software developed by Kaspersky Lab, a Russian firm with alleged links to that country’s intelligence agencies, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke said in a statement Wednesday.

FP’s Elias Groll writes that agencies now have 90 days to remove Kaspersky software from their systems. “Amid an investigation into the Russian campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, Kaspersky has come under intense scrutiny by American officials who fear that the Kremlin could lean on the firm to grant access to client computer systems.”

Cyber. The United States has come much close to a major cyber disaster than you might think, FP’s Elias Groll reports. “I have seen first-hand Chinese military actors and other state-sponsored entities gain access to the operational technology environments of oil and gas companies and nuclear power plants,” Charles Carmakal, a vice president at incident-response giant Mandiant, told the 8th Annual Billington Cybersecurity Summit on Wednesday. Those hackers could very well have turned off the power, Carmakal said, but did not do so because it wasn’t in the interests of the states they work for – not yet anyway.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Unmasking. The United Arab Emirates tried to broker meetings between the incoming Trump administration and Russia during during the presidential transition in late 2016, according to a scoop from CNN. The attempt at establishing a backchannel was revealed by former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice during testimony before the House inquiry into Russian election meddling. Rice told investigators that she asked the intelligence community to reveal the identities of American citizens in redacted intercepts in order to figure out why Emirati crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was traveling to the United States.

Leaks. A new memo from National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster’s declaring war on leaks has, well, leaked. Buzzfeed got a copy of the for-official-use-only memo, which demands that all federal agencies have employees sit through a one hour training video on unauthorized disclosures of classified material as well as “controlled unclassified” information.

Investment. The Trump administration has blocked an investment group with ties to China from buying American chip maker Lattice Semiconductor Corp, citing concerns about the military applications of its technology. The federal government has the authority to prevent foreign investment in sensitive industries on national security grounds and presidents tend to use it sparingly but the Trump administration has repeatedly signaled that it plans to be more active in preventing Chinese investment in American companies working in sensitive technology sectors.

Volley and serve. South Korea is once again testing its own missile capabilities in a not-so-subtle warning to its neighbor across the demilitarized zone. South Korea’s defense ministry released footage of a South Korean F-15 firing a long range Taurus cruise missile at a static target. Lest there be any doubt about the message implicit in the test, South Korea made sure to place a red star on a white background — as seen on the North Korean flag — on the cruise missile’s intended target.

Departures. The exodus of senior State Department personnel continues with the resignation of the chief technology officer of the department’s Global Engagement Center in charge of countering Russian and jihadist propaganda. Defense One reports that Nash Borges left the center along with two analysts, adding further turmoil to an office that has been without a director since the Trump administration came into office.  

It’s the little things. The tit-for-tat diplomatic retaliation between the U.S. and Russia has entered the passive aggressive stage. San Francisco city authorities have ticketed Russia for the fire it set in its San Francisco consulate, citing air quality regulations. In the meantime, Russia is yanking American diplomats’ choice parking spots at the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg.

Somalia. Africa Command says it carried out three airstrikes on members of the al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia, killing six members of the group.

Myanmar. “I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military activities and violence and uphold the rule of law” — United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres telling responding to the wave of violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in the wake of a military operation in Rakhine state that began in August.

Green light. The State Department is approving more foreign arms sales at a faster pace, reaching a record total of $75.9 billion worth of approved arms deal for FY2017, according to Defense News, besting an FY2012 record of $68.6 billion worth of approvals. The sales agreements, however, are still pending Congressional approval and final price negotiations.

ISIS book keeping. A new study by the Rand Corporation concludes that the Islamic State wasn’t entirely terrible at managing the economies of the territory in controlled in Iraq and Syria. While the terrorist group made mistakes in its governance of commerce, the study finds that the economy in Islamic State-held areas largely held together until pressure from the U.S.-led military campaign disrupted it.

Drones. The Marine Corps is turning to 3D printing in order to make it easier to use unmanned aircraft in the field. Popular Science reports that the Corps’s NexLog program developed a cheap and nearly disposable drone called the Scout, which troops can print out, assemble, and fly in a short amount of time, saving space and money in the process.

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