News Briefs – February 12, 2018


U.S. adding air power, intelligence gathering in Afghanistan

The U.S. is shifting combat and intelligence-gathering aircraft to Afghanistan as part of an intensified focus on the Taliban, now that the campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is winding down, the commander of coalition air forces in Afghanistan said Feb. 7.

Air Force Maj. Gen. James Hecker told reporters at the Pentagon in a video teleconference from Kabul that on Feb. 1 the U.S. Central Command officially designated Afghanistan as its “main effort,” supplanting the counter-Islamic State campaign in Iraq and Syria. Central Command is responsible for all U.S. military operations in the broader Middle East as well as Central Asia.

Hecker emphasized the importance of increased support from U.S. intelligence agencies, whose analysis and expertise help the military identify targets to strike.

“This behind-the-scenes legwork allows us to hit the Taliban where it hurts most, whether it’s command-and-control … or their pocketbooks,” Hecker said.

He said the U.S. now has 50 percent more MQ-9 Reaper drones providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in Afghanistan, compared with last year.

He said the U.S. also has added A-10 attack planes and will be adding combat search-and-rescue aircraft.

Even as the U.S. adds air power, the size and capabilities of the Afghan air force are growing, Hecker said. The Afghans are now conducting more strike missions than the Americans, he said.

“We are putting unrelenting pressure on the enemy these days,” Hecker said, with a goal of compelling the Taliban to reconcile with the government. That goal has been pursued by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for much of the past 16-plus years, without success.

Hecker acknowledged that air power alone is unlikely to do the trick.

“You’re not just going to bomb them into submission,” he said. “But it is another pressure point that we can put on them,” in addition to ground combat operations led by the Afghan army and special operations forces. AP

U.S. launches rare strike on Syrian government-backed troops

The U.S. military launched airstrikes on Syrian government-backed troops Feb. 7, a rarity in the Syrian civil war.

As many as 500 attackers began what a U.S. military official says appears to be a coordinated assault on Syrian opposition forces accompanied by U.S. advisers in Deir el-Zour Province.

The official says the strikes were in self-defense after the pro-government forces began firing artillery and tank rounds at the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The official says about 100 of the attackers were killed.

It’s rare for the U.S. to strike forces that support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Several U.S. officials say no Americans were injured in the attack by the pro-regime forces, but one SDF member was wounded. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the attack. AP

France to boost military spending, modernize army

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is ramping up military spending, arming drones and hiring more “cyberfighters” for Europe’s biggest army — notably amid demands by NATO and U.S. President Donald Trump for European countries to pitch in more for their own defense.

The French defense minister presented a bill Feb. 8 foreseeing 295 billion euros ($364 billion) in overall defense spending from 2019 to 2025. That includes 1.7 billion euros in additional spending each year through 2022, particularly to modernize equipment and improve intelligence.

“The world is more uncertain, and the threats are more and more diffuse,” Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters, noting growing demands for domestic military deployment after a string of deadly extremist attacks.

She insisted that France needs more defense spending to maintain its global influence and “intervene where its interests are threatened, and where it’s needed for international stability.”

France has thousands of troops overseas, from the Middle East to Africa, and will be the EU’s only nuclear-armed nation when Britain leaves the bloc next year.
The military upgrade is part of Macron’s efforts to beef up collective European defense capacity and strengthen the EU as Brexit looms.

The plan aims to fulfill Macron’s campaign promises last year to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2025, in line with what NATO wants from all members. At a NATO summit in May, Trump reiterated longstanding U.S. pressure on allies to increase military spending.

After a steady decline in defense spending and personnel cuts under Macron’s predecessors, the government now is promising 6,000 more jobs by 2025.

The bill also includes France’s first armed drones, new nuclear combat submarines, more fighter planes and new intelligence satellites. The bill goes to parliament, where it’s expected to face a few months of discussion before a final vote this summer.

France’s military chief quit last year after a spat with Macron over defense budget cuts. AP

U.S. military bullies beware — new policy means marks on records

Military members who harass or bully people on the job or online can now be certain of a permanent mark on their service record, according to a new Pentagon policy on harassment.

The policy announced Feb. 8 pulls together a complicated mix of rules governing sexual harassment, bullying, hazing and other forms of hostile online behavior and workplace discrimination. The goal is to clarify the process for victims filing complaints and make sure that those responsible are held to account for their actions.

The overhaul comes almost a year after an online nude photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. The ensuring criminal investigation forced leaders across all the military services to create more vigorous social media standards. The scandal showed how difficult it is to track or govern inappropriate behavior by military members in the largely anonymous online universe.

Pentagon officials said consolidating various harassment policies will make it easier for victims to report problems, seek help and see the consequences for offenders. Until now, some members of the military who engaged in such actions could face punishment but then see any mention of the infractions expunged from their records.

The military services will have 60 days to develop plans to put in place the policy.

“We have a sexual harassment policy, we have a memo that clarifies response and reporting of sexual harassment, we have regulations on hazing and bullying, we have a policy that covers discriminatory harassment,” said Elise Van Winkle, the Pentagon’s principal director for force resiliency. “What this does is pull these together to cover all forms of harassment.”

An important change involves clearer guidelines on how a military member can report harassment, particularly for troops who may belong to one service but work in a job reporting to another service. Army soldiers, for example, can work at an air base overseas and report to an Air Force commander. A Navy officer working at U.S. Pacific Command may have airmen or Marines on staff.

The new policy will allow troops to file harassment complaints wherever they feel most comfortable, though their own service would provide them assistance. An alleged offender probably would go through the justice system. If found guilty, he or she would face punishment from his or her own service.

Standardizing the rules “helps increase the effectiveness of these polices when we deploy them to the field,” Van Winkle said.

She said the services will have to set up 24-hour hotlines for harassment questions and complaints. Most services have hotlines for sexual harassment, but this expands the requirement to all forms of bad conduct.

“We owe our service members every protection we can give them,” said Robert Wilkie, defense undersecretary for personnel. “While this policy is not perfect, it is a critical milestone in the department’s efforts to eliminate harassment and fully prepare the entire force to protect the nation.” AP

China says introducing stealth fighters into combat units

China says it has begun introducing its J-20 stealth fighter jets into combat units, in a potentially major upgrade of its air force capabilities.

Air force spokesman Shen Jinke said in a statement released on the service’s official microblog Feb. 9 that the move boosts China’s ability to carry out the “sacred mission” of defending its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.

First flown in 2011, the J-20 is China’s answer to fifth-generation jets such as the U.S. F-22 and F-35.

It made its formal debut at a 2016 air show in southern China and last year was featured in a military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

The plane was developed domestically but is believed to still rely on Russian engines for power. AP

U.S. Navy issues request for proposals for more destroyers

The U.S. Navy has submitted a request for proposals for more destroyers to be built by either Maine’s Bath Iron Works or Mississippi’s Ingalls shipyard, or both.

The Naval Sea Systems Command issued its final request Feb. 8 for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers built with ballistic missile defense capability.

The contract covers the fiscal years 2018 through 2022.

The request for proposal doesn’t mention the number of ships but earlier Navy documents envisioned up to 10 destroyers, with options for more.

Bath Iron Works said Feb. 9 that the company will be assessing the latest request. The company had no further comment. AP

Israel downs Iranian drone and strikes Syria, F-16 crashes

The Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone that infiltrated the country early Feb. 10 and struck Iranian targets in Syria that launched it, in what the military called a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty.”

The military said its planes faced heavy anti-aircraft counter fire from Syria that forced Israeli pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. It said the pilots were injured and evacuated to a hospital. Sirens sounded in northern Israel as a result of massive Syrian fire. Explosions could be heard in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley region near the Syrian border.

Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Iran was “responsible for this severe violation of Israeli sovereignty.”

The military says it is “monitoring events and is fully prepared for further action.”

Syrian state TV quoted a military official saying Syrian air defenses hit more than one Israeli plane. The official said the Israeli raids hit a base in the country’s central area, and called it a “new aggression.”

Israel has been warning of late of increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah.

Israel has shot down several drones that previously tried to infiltrate its territory from Syria. The targeting of an Iranian site in response, however, marks an escalation in the Israeli retaliation. The military confirmed that the Syrian target — the unmanned aircraft’s launch components — was successfully destroyed. The military’s top military brass was meeting to coordinate Israel’s continued response.

Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said Israel held Iran directly responsible for the incident.

“This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” he said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.” AP