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State of the Union, North Korean Nukes, and Sequester

Jeff McCausland, PhD
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(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Election Returns

I serve as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs as the Senior Fellow for War and Ethics. For a number of years I have been writing this brief column monthly to summarize what are the most recent developments and pressing issues in American national security affairs. I have decided to now share this column with many of the radio stations that I have the pleasure to work with in my other capacity as a National Security Consultant for CBS radio and TV.
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February brought us an odd almost ironic series of events. It included the President’s State of the Union Address that was largely focused on the American economy and other domestic issues such as immigration and gun control. In his remarks President Obama did announce that the American presence in Afghanistan would be cut in half by February 2014 and reiterated the goal of having all American combat forces depart by the end of next year. His Democratic supporters received these goals enthusiastically while his Republican opponents were, at best, “politely” critical. At almost the same moment tension on the Korean peninsula increased. The so-called “Hermit Kingdom” led by the 28 year old, Kim Jong Eun, detonated its third nuclear device and clearly is intent on acquiring both nuclear weapons and the ability to launch them using long range ballistic missiles. The month ended in domestic recrimination as the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans failed to find a compromise that would allow the nation to avoid the “sequester” or across the board budget cuts that went into effect beginning on 1 March. In the final weeks of the month both sides seemed more intent on blaming the other than seeking a solution.

Domestic security issues and observations

           a. The Sequester. As suggested, the “sequester” took effect on 1 March despite a belief in both the administration and Republican Party that this would not occur. Overall the sequester requires trimming $85 billion from a $3.6 trillion Federal budget. This will trigger over time $46 billion automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget through September of this year. It emerged from the debt ceiling standoff that occurred in 2011. Congress approved $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over ten years to be triggered in 2013 if Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a compromise over deficit reduction.

Personnel accounts are largely protected from the budgetary ax so most of the cuts will have to be made in the service’s operation and maintenance accounts. Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, has argued that the Army is already facing an $8 billion shortfall, and the sequester will add an additional $5.4 billion. He further stated that this would have an adverse impact on training units preparing for deployment to Afghanistan and could result in extended units that are currently in the combat theater. The Navy has announced that it remove one aircraft carrier from its deployment in the Persian Gulf. The Air Force also reported that a significant decrease in training and flight hours will result from this action.

The actual effects of the sequester will develop slowly over time and, if not reversed or modified, result in civilian furloughs in May. The discussion will now shift to an evaluation of the dire predictions that have been made by the administration and the service chiefs as well as an additional concern if Congress is unable to pass another continuing resolution by the end of March.

           b. State of the Union Address and Afghanistan. President Obama’s commenced his 12 February State of the Union address with an announcement on Afghanistan troop withdrawal. The President stated that the United States would bring 34,000 troops home over the next twelve months which amounted to a steeper withdrawal of forces than some had expected, but providing the new commander, Marine General Joe Dunford, some discretion.

As many as 6,000 are already scheduled to come out in the next few months, through attrition, as smaller, specialized brigades of about 2,000 personnel replace conventional brigade combat teams of as many as 4,000 people. Administration officials have argued that the drawdown is consistent with the “preferred option” articulated by General Allen prior to his change of command. Still many experts believe that Dunford had wanted a more gradual drawdown this year of about 25,000. The compromise appears to have been keeping the level of forces high thru the fighting season so withdrawal is completed one year from State of the Union as opposed to the end of this calendar year.

Concurrently, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) began taking over the security responsibility for more areas of Afghanistan. This process was planned for five phases, or tranches. The first tranche started the transfer of security responsibility to the ANSF in July 2011. The latest phase, Tranche 4, will begin in March. With this phase, the ANSF will have taken ownership of areas that contain 87% of Afghanistan population. As a result of these two processes, the ANSF has assumed responsibility for security for a large portion of Afghanistan. These transfers are significant, but they do not include many parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces that are most affected by the Taliban insurgency.

These last areas will transfer to the ANSF sometime in 2014. Afghanistan is currently in the winter lull. Fighting will pick up in again in April as this summer’s fighting season resumes. This will provide a major test of ANSF’s ability to maintain security across Afghanistan as well as America’s plan for the withdrawal of its forces.

While the ANSF’s combat units are relatively mature, its combat support units are much less so. Development activity has shifted to building these units. Looming over this is the impending withdrawal of US and ISAF forces from Afghanistan, the vast majority of which will leave by the end of 2014. While the US/ISAF provides most of the ANSF’s combat support functions right now, there are no plans to continue this support after 2014. This leaves the ANSF with limited time (and money) to build its own capabilities. As a result the ANSF has scaled back on its plans. Instead of building the combat support units to the standards of Western armies, the units will be built to lower, although hopefully still effective, Afghan standards.

One example of the necessary scaling back is medical evacuation of battlefield wounded. For Western armies, the wounded are evacuated by helicopter directly from the battlefield to a fully equipped military hospital. For the ANSF, however, evacuation will be done using ground transportation, and the wounded will be evacuated to the nearest civilian medical facility. Another example is fire support. Currently, US/ISAF provides ubiquitous fire support with attack aircraft and helicopters. But fire support from the Afghan Air Force will not be available by 2014, if ever. Consequently, the ANSF will have to rely on fire support from ground units, which would mean 60mm mortars for infantry companies and 122mm howitzers for infantry battalions and brigades.

Other Afghan combat support units being built include armored transport vehicles, logistics, counter-IED, and transport helicopters. But the essential fact remains that the ANSF will be substantially on its own after 2014. It will have to live with whatever it can build by then.

           c. Final vote on Hagel. Former Senator Chuck Hagel was confirmed by a vote of 58-41 as the new Secretary of Defense after a difficult and at times bruising confirmation process. This was the narrowest margin of support for any nominee to this position since it was established in 1947. Clearly, Mr. Hagel has never been forgiven by some of his former Republican Senate colleagues for his outspoken opposition and criticism of the Iraq War. Oddly, Hagel did not appear to help his chances during his confirmation hearings when he appeared at times to be either uninformed or confused.

It will be interesting to see if this will diminish his effectiveness, as he assumes one of the most difficult jobs in government. He was greeted on his first day in office by the “sequester” and may well be forced to confront the senior uniformed military leadership over a host of budgetary issues and reductions.

           d. Grounding of F35. The Pentagon suspended all F-35 flights after a routine engine inspection of a test aircraft revealed a crack on a turbine blade. The jet is also facing scrutiny as the across-the-board reductions required by sequestration will take as much as $45 billion this year from defense programs, including the F-35.

The Pentagon envisioned the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as an affordable, state-of-the-art stealth jet serving three military branches and U.S. allies. Instead, the Lockheed Martin Corporation (LMT)aircraft has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software that have helped put it seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial cost estimate. At almost $400 billion, it’s the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history.

Many experts argue that it is also the defense project that is “too big to kill”. The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman Corporation (NOC) and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs — and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed. The F-35 is an example of how large weapons programs can plow ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity and their failure to arrive on time and on budget.

“It’s got a lot of political protection,” said Winslow Wheeler, a director at the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information in Washington. “In that environment, very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it.” Among the contractors, Lockheed has the greatest exposure to the F-35. The program made up 13 percent of the company’s $46.5 billion in revenue in 2011. Unlike many of its subcontractors Lockheed also has no commercial market to protect it from reductions in the budget for the F-35. United Technologies Corporation which supplies the engine for the F-35, has more diversity than Lockheed. Northrop, another key F-35 contractor, has a hedge because it builds 40 percent of Boeing Company’s F/A-18E/F jet. Ironically, Northrop would likely benefit if the F-35 gets cut. About 5 percent of Northrop’s $26.5 billion in new contract awards in 2012 were tied to the F-35.

The supersonic F-35 was intended to transform military aviation. Three versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are planned to be built off a common assembly line. This is designed to permit faster production, reduced costs and compatibility among allied air forces. About a quarter of the aircraft will be purchased by other countries. Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and the U.S. agreed in 2006 to cooperatively produce and sustain the F-35 jet. Israel and Japan later signed on to purchase jets and take part in their development. Consequently, the F-35 will probably become the dominant export fighter for the U.S. aerospace industry.

As previously suggested members of Congress are hesitant to make deep cuts to the project in part because it generates work in their states. The F-35 supports 41,000 jobs in Texas alone, the most of any state, according to Lockheed’s website. The company assembles the fighter in Fort Worth. Even Senator John McCain, who has been a critic of the fighter in past, toned down his rhetoric. The Arizona Senator welcomed a squadron of the Marine Corps’ F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing jets to his home state in November.

McCain said he was encouraged the program was “moving in the right direction” after years of setbacks. The jet “may be the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world,” he said at a ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Previously, the Republican senator had described the F-35’s ballooning costs and delays as “disgraceful,” “outrageous” and a “tragedy.”

The co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s deficit reduction panel, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson, recommended in 2010 that Air Force and Navy purchases be reduced. They also suggested the Pentagon cancel the Marines’ F-35, the most complex of the three models.

Several experts have also argued that the Marines F-35 should be cancelled particularly given its technical problems. They further argue that AV-8B Harrier is sufficient for the near future. Some also believe that the F-35 will provide marginal improvement over existing F-16 jets as compared with the amount the Pentagon is planning to invest. The Air Force is buying its version to replace F-16s. The F-35 will also replace the Air Force A-10 ground attack aircraft and older Navy F-18s.

The program’s woes have been blamed partly on how it was conceived — with the notion that small numbers of aircraft could be produced during development and testing. “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first flight test was acquisition malpractice,” Frank Kendall, then acting acquisition undersecretary, said in February 2012. He is now undersecretary for acquisition.

Lockheed’s general manager for the F-35 said the program has made very significant strides over the last three years. He further has argued that structural and flight tests have improved, and the Bethesda, Maryland-based company delivered 30 aircraft last year compared with 13 in 2011. Lockheed is scheduled to deliver 36 to the Defense Department this year. Lockheed has further argued that the jet has met or exceeded expectations in performance. Even so, the F-35 remains in development, and tests that would allow the plane to go into full production aren’t scheduled to be completed until 2019, seven years later than planned, Pentagon data shows.

The total cost of the U.S. military’s 2,443 F-35 aircraft is now estimated at $395.7 billion, up from $233 billion in 2001 in current dollars, according to a Pentagon report. Some experts have argued that Lockheed began the program without a full understanding of the requirements. The program’s life-cycle cost, which includes development and 55 years of support, is projected to top $1.5 trillion, according to the latest Pentagon estimates.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates instilled some discipline in 2010 when he fired the Pentagon’s F-35 program manager and withheld from Lockheed $614 million in fees. Gates put the Marines’ version on “probation” in 2011 because of glitches in the jet’s propulsion system. His successor, Leon Panetta, released it from probation a year later. Both secretaries postponed jet orders in their budgets, citing the need for more testing.

Overseas, the allies are balancing concerns about the F-35’s cost with the amount of work sent to their companies. Allies have agreed to purchase 721 fighters, yet the soaring price is painful for nations with shrinking defense budgets. The estimated cost of each plane has about doubled to $137 million since 2001, according to a GAO report last year.

All the original nations remain important to the program, and five of the eight have placed initial orders according to Lockheed. Italy, Canada and Denmark, however, have scaled back their planned purchases. Italy announced last year it would reduce its initial goal of buying 131 jets to 90 and is now beset by serious economic challenges. The F-35 emerged as a campaign issue in the race to replace Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti after a center-left candidate, whose coalition leads in all opinion polls, said the next administration should continue to cut planned F-35 orders.

Canada had reduced its order to 65 planes from 80. In December, it said it was reconsidering its commitment to purchase any of the jets after it was suggested that the price to buy and maintain them might reach about $45 billion. But Canada could suffer some additional penalties if it exits the F-35 program. A Lockheed spokesman raised the possibility that Canada would lose its F-35-related business — and jobs — if it didn’t buy planes.

Japan, which will increase its defense budget for the first time in 11 years, isn’t likely to change its plan to buy 42 planes. It may even order hundreds more F-35 jets when it starts retiring its fleets of F-2 and F-15 planes.

Many experts believe that the allies’ commitments should make the U.S. wary of making deep cuts to the F-35 program. The program was advertised as a major collaborative program with a number of allies, and ending it now at the same time the United States has criticized many of its partners for not spending enough on defense would appear inappropriate.

The new fighter was described by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as the “backbone of our tactical aircraft plans”. Consequently, Carter has argued that the issue with F-35 is not whether it will work but working through the development phase in an effort to reduce costs.

International security issues and observations

           a. Continued violence in Egypt. Egyptian prosecutors uncovered a treasure trove of information in the so-called “Nasr City Cell” case, including correspondence between the terrorist who headed that cell and al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The Nasr City cell allegedly plotted various attacks inside Egypt and has connections to the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. One of the two terrorists who led the Nasr City cell is Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad), who served Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s.

A computer previously recovered during a raid on an apartment in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo on October 24, 2012 included correspondence between Jamal and Zawahiri. Two such letters were discussed in the Egyptian press. The revelation is important for many reasons. For instance, Jamal’s trainees reportedly participated in the Benghazi attack, which left four Americans, including a US Ambassador, dead. The letters do not deal with the assault in Benghazi. They were written beforehand and summarize Jamal’s various nefarious activities, including inside Libya.

Political violence still plagued Egypt which made the future of the Morsi government problematical and longer term threatened the economic viability of the country. In early February a protestor was shot dead and 54 wounded during ongoing protests demanding ousting of President Muhammad Morsi. Violence has occurred throughout the month particularly in Port Said and Cairo. In an effort to stem the violence the government announced that parliamentary elections will start April 22nd. In response the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, declared that is would boycott these elections. The Front’s spokesman said the elections would not be free or fair. If this proves to be true it will likely insure that Islamist parties remain in control of the government. Still there seems a distinct possibility that this election will never take place. In any event, it appears very likely at this moment that Egypt will continue to experience widespread violence and even the possibility of civil war. The Morsi government also revealed that Egypt spent 2.5 million on teargas in January alone.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Cairo which was the first visit by an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution. Ahmadinejad expressed his desire for a “strategic axis” between Egypt and Iran. He attempted to demonstrate goodwill by to agreeing to Egyptians to visit Iran without visas and offering loans.

           b. North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon. North Korea announced through its news agency that it had conducted its third nuclear test shortly before President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address. This was subsequently confirmed by US intelligence experts, and it is believed that the weapon was roughly eight kilotons or half the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

There are a number of key questions in the aftermath of this test. First, it will be important to know whether the North Koreans used uranium rather than plutonium in the test. If Pyongyang has been able to a test an uranium device the situation will have become more dangerous and complex. This would suggest that rather than using a portion of their dwindling stocks of weapons grade plutonium that North Korea had now amassed sufficient highly enriched uranium. Second, intelligence officials will be attempting to analyze whether or not the North has achieved sufficient miniaturization in its weapons design that would enable it to put a warhead on a missile. Clearly, this is the direction that the program is moving in combination with improvements in their long range missile technology. Third, many experts have suspected that North Korea may have obtained foreign assistance in the development of new weapons. This could have come from Iran or even Pakistan. Interestingly, it was reported that the chief of Iran’s nuclear program was an observer at the North Korean nuclear test. Finally, how soon can we expect another test? As the North Korean leadership celebrated the success of this test, it also threatened to continue testing despite international condemnation. In an ironic twist, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun hosted former NBA star, Dennis Rodman, and representatives of the Harlem Globetrotters in Pyongyang at the end of the month.

Some fear that this will fuel what appears to be a growing arms race in Asia. Many experts argue that Asia has plunged into an arms race that actually meets the interests of US arms producers. The military expenditure in Asia has already surpassed Europe in 2012 totaling $224 billion. To strengthen America’s treaty allies and other security partners in the region under the Asia Pivot policy, the US has increased its arms sales to the Far East. The sales agreements with countries in the US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility rose to $13.7 billion in fiscal 2012, up 5.4% from the previous year.

As previously suggested Japan has announced plans to buy 42 F-35 fighters from the United States. South Korea is considering a deal to buy 120 advanced, high-end fighter aircraft as well, and the Philippines are to buy the second-hand US F-16 fighters. The US agreed to upgrade the Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/B fighters.

There is substantial interest in drones throughout the region. The US and Australia have begun discussions over the prospect for the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean to become a base for US drones. Thailand, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea are also seeking to build their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Many fear that North Korea is developing kamikaze drones which could target South Korean armed forces. The US is testing aircraft carriers – based remotely – piloted systems to be operational by 2018. The ability to launch long-range UAVs from aircraft carriers, Guam and Australia would obviously greatly enhance operational flexibility. In 2012 the US agreed to sell four RQ-4 Global Hawk drones to South Korea.

In April 2012 only one week after a failed North Korean long-range rocket launch, South Korea announced its deployment of a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea. The cruise missile South Korea unveiled, called the Hyunmu-3C, is believed to have a range of 1,500 kilometers carrying a 450-kilogram payload. South Korea is already believed to have deployed a 1,000-kilometer-range Hyunmu-3B cruise missile.

Japan’s right-wing politicians have taken advantage of the increased tensions to call for boosting the potential of Self-Defense Forces under the label of strengthening the US-Japan alliance. Some speak in favor of a military build-up and the development of nuclear weapons. Japan also plans to purchase PAC-3 surface-to-air anti-ballistic missile systems and modernize four F-15 fighter jets.

The US has also announced that it is seeking to build a missile defense system (BMD) in Asia. Many believe China will respond to such a deployment with a change to its long-held nuclear policy. If Japan, South Korea and Australia join the system, a chain reaction could follow. Australia signed a BMD Framework memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2004. Australia’s new destroyers are to use US Aegis missile defense combat system. The US is also expanding missile defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea. There is also a strong belief that the Philippines may join the effort.

The US and Japan agreed in September 2012 to deploy powerful early-warning missile defense radar, probably in southern Japan, to add to the capability of similar X-Band radar stationed in the north of Japan which were established in 2006. The US has also been evaluating sites in Southeast Asia for a third X-Band radar to build a network allowing more accurate tracking of ballistic missile launches from North Korea and from parts of China. These radars could be linked to sea and ground-based interceptors. A total of 27 US and Japanese warships possess missile defense capability (23 – in the US inventory). They have initial capability against ballistic missiles with ranges up to 5,500 km.

China and Russia have both strongly opposed the US-led ballistic missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region. Both are building new weapons that they say will counter the U.S. missile defense if it achieves global reach by 2020 as planned.

           c. Removal of US Special Operations Forces from parts of Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai ordered the Ministry of Defense to eject all “US Special Forces” from the key eastern province of Wardak after accusing the American troops or their local Afghan security partners of committing war crimes. The President’s spokesman argued that in one case nine people disappeared following an operation and in a separate incident a student was taken away at night from his home. He added that his tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge.

Karzai’s order is an ominous development for future US and NATO plans, which are expected to rely heavily on special operations forces to take on a greater role as the bulk of conventional forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.
This is obviously a test for the new American commander, Marine General Dunford; and ISAF headquarters immediately announced that it would conduct a full investigation of these allegations. Some experts believe that Karzai may have made this decision without discussing it with his senior military leaders.

US special operations forces have often partnered with local Afghan security forces, such as the Afghan Local Police (ALP) at the village level. President Karzai has generally opposed the ALP, and some Afghans fear the local units, currently totaling 19,600 officers. They have often been accused of corruption (as have Afghan government security forces), and Karzai has argued that they development will foster a return to warlordism in the country.

As previously suggested Karzai’s directive for the withdraw of ISAF special operations forces from Wardak comes as NATO is working to negotiate and finalize plans for its force structure in Afghanistan after combat forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014. Various draft proposals and statements by US personnel and NATO partners have indicated that a force of 8,000 to 15,500 NATO troops, comprised of up to 9,500 Americans, could remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The residual mission is expected to be structured around training Afghan security forces and the continuation of counterterrorism operations targeting high value enemies. Both tasks rely heavily on US Special Forces as well as the broader category of all US special operations forces.

Wardak province, which borders Kabul to the southwest, has been contested by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network (the al Qaeda-linked Taliban subgroup) despite US efforts to secure the province over the past several years. The Taliban have been in control of the Tangi Valley, which runs through Wardak, since the withdrawal of US forces from Combat Outpost Tangi in the spring of 2011. US troops turned over the base to the Afghan Army, which immediately abandoned it. The Taliban later released a videotape that showed hundreds of fighters and senior Taliban leaders massing at the abandoned base and conducting a tour.

Wardak has been the scene of numerous high-profile attacks by the two groups, particularly in 2011. The Taliban shot down a US Army Chinook helicopter in Sayyidabad on August 6, 2011. Thirty-eight US and Afghan troops, including 17 US Navy SEALS from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, were killed in the crash. And on September 10, 2011, the Taliban detonated a massive suicide bomb outside of Combat Outpost Sayyidabad, killing four Afghans and wounding more than 100 people, including 77 US soldiers. US commanders later blamed the attack on the Haqqani Network.

Al Qaeda is also known to maintain a presence in Wardak province. The presence of terror cells has been detected in three of the province’s eight districts. On November 18, 2011, special operations forces killed Mujib Rahman Mayar, an Afghan member of al Qaeda. Mayar trained insurgents and worked as a courier for the terror group, ISAF stated after his death. He also delivered messages and transported money for the al Qaeda network.

           d. Syria. The civil war in Syria continues to wreak havoc across that nation. The number of dead after two years of fighting is estimated at over 70,000, and many predict that there will soon be over one million refugees in the countries bordering Syria. This has continued to raise the fear that this conflict could destabilize several countries in the region – Lebanon, Jordan, etc. Government forces and rebels have continued to fight pitch battles for control of territory and urban areas including Damascus.

The Obama administration has continued its policy of providing some humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition while refusing to provide weapons. In early February Vice President Biden met with the Syrian Opposition Coalition President, praising his courage and leadership. At month’s end newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Syrian opposition leadership in Rome and argued that he had new ideas that would change Assad’s calculation that he could stay in power. In a published account of American aid to Syria, the US noted the high number of casualties and refugees, and further claimed to have given over $365 million in humanitarian assistance and nonlethal support throughout Syrian provinces, with the promise of more to come.

The rebels have clearly had some successes against Assad’s forces as shown on the following map. In early February a Jihadist group captured an Army base in Tabqa, seizing a huge cache of weapons while rebels continue attacking Wadi Deif base in Idlib province. The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant which the US has argued is affiliated with al-Qaeda gained control of the country’s largest dam located on the Euphrates River and later the rebels claimed control of a nuclear reactor.

The rebels also reported that General Hassan Shateri, a commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard with close ties to Hezbollah, was killed traveling from Damascus to Beirut by “armed Zionist terrorists.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian rebels had killed Shateri, while the rebels claimed he was killed by an Israeli strike near the SSRC facility in Jamraya. Israeli warplanes did conduct airstrikes against a truck convoy in Syria. Israeli officials allege the trucks were transporting Russian SA-17 surface to air missiles to Hezbollah groups in Lebanon. Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned that Israel might launch pre-emptive attacks against Syrian targets if it appears Syrian chemical weapons were being transferred or falling into the hands of Hezbollah fighters. In response Iran announced that any attack against the Assad regime would be construed as an attack against Iran.

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Despite these successes on the battlefield, the opposition has at times shown clear signs of a lack of unity. The United Nations has urged the rebels to negotiate with Assad. In response Syrian rebel leader Mouaz al-Khatib stated his willingness to talk to government officials in Northern Syria. This was later repudiated by other leaders of the opposition.

At this point the rebels control a significant amount of territory as shown on the map. Still there have not been large scale defections from President Assad’s forces, and they appear fairly intact. Assad continues to receive support from the Russian Federation and Iran. It was reported that 1,000 Hezbollah fighters entered Syria in the past month to battle the rebels, fighting to seize airports in the north, while Palestinians from Gaza have been trickling in to join the rebels. The government also appears to be expanding its use of SCUD missiles against rebel held territory. Several were launched against Aleppo, and Human Rights Watch has reported that over 141 people including 71 children were killed in these attacks.

Media security issues and observations.

The following are a brief summary of other national security issues that the media focused on during the month.

           a. Iran. American and Western European representatives met with Iranian experts in Almaty, Kazakhstan to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. This was the first meeting of the so-called P5+1 group – consisting of the United States, China, France, Russia, the UK plus Germany) in eight months. Iranian leaders described the discussions as positive, but there were clearly no breakthroughs and further talks later this spring are scheduled.

The US also expanded its economic sanctions on Iran by adding more names to so-called ‘blacklist’ of individuals and foreign corporations. A poll conducted in Iran indicated that 56% of Iranians believe western sanctions have harmed their lives a great deal, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has announced that Iran isn’t interested in talks with the U.S. while Iran’s economy remains under pressure. A second poll showed, however, that 63% of Iranians supported their countries nuclear program.

In his first trip abroad Secretary of State John Kerry warned Iran that the United States would not conduct talks “just for the sake of talks” and would not allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. This view has been reiterated by a number of administration officials. In what some believe to be a response to continued American pressure, the Iranian government also announced it had found new large uranium deposits, added centrifuges at one nuclear plant, and identified sixteen sites for future nuclear power plants.

           b. PFC Manning pleads guilty to lesser charges. PFC Bradley Manning who is accused of providing thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks pleaded guilty to ten charges. Manning still faces court-martial for an additional twelve charges including aiding the enemy which could result in life imprisonment. It is believed that Manning’s defense team hopes the prosecution will accept this plea and drop the additional charges. They apparently believe the government will wish to see the court-martial end due to the fact that it has dragged on for a long time and resulted in significant criticism by human rights groups.

           c. Change of command in Afghanistan. Marine General John Allen relinquished command of American and ISAF troops in Afghanistan to Marine General Joe Dunford. Allen had been in command for nineteen months through a particularly difficult time due to incidents such as a video showing Marines urinating on Taliban dead, massive demonstrations following the reported inadvertent burning of Korans, and the murder of a large number of Afghan civilians by an American NCO. He was scheduled to become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe but in a surprise announcement Allen decided to retire due to his wife’s health problems.

           d. Chinese computer hacking. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported cyber attacks following their publication of stories focused on the wealth amassed by the family of Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. The Department of Energy and several American corporations also reported attacks on their computer networks that were believed to be coming from China. In response, the Pentagon announced that it would hire 4,000 extra computer code analysts, online security experts, and its own group of hackers to boost the Cyber Command division which currently consists of 900 employees.

The American cyber security firm, Mandiant, reported that the attacks originated in a twelve story building in Shanghai which was the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398. Experts believe this unit may have 2000 employees and over 1000 computer servers at its disposal.

Future observations

As we look ahead I would make the following final comments.

           a. The Sequester. Many will focus on whether or not the dire predictions provided by administration officials and senior military leaders will occur as the full effects of the sequester begin to happen. Still the continuing budgetary arguments between the administration and Republicans in Congress will now shift to the end of March and whether or not an additional Continuing Resolution will be passed.

           b. North Korea. It will be very interesting to see what further actions the North Korean government takes in the aftermath of new United Nations sanctions that will be imposed following their third nuclear test. Both Russia and China have supported these new sanctions.

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Jeffrey McCausland is the founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC (http://diamondsixleadership.com/).

He is also a visiting professor of International Security at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He serves as a senior fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the United States Naval Academy and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. Prior to these appointments he was a visiting professor of International Law and Diplomacy at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

McCausland is a retired Colonel from the U.S. Army and completed his active duty service in the United States Army in 2002 culminating his career as dean of academics, United States Army War College. Upon retirement McCausland accepted the Class of 1961 chair of leadership at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland and served there from January 2002 to July 2004. He continues to hold a position as a senior fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy.

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