U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon

U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon
By Kawa Omar and Idrees Ali

DOHUK, Iraq/KABUL (Reuters) – The Pentagon is considering keeping some U.S. troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to help deny oil to Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday.

U.S. troops are crossing into Iraq as part of a broader withdrawal from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, a decision that allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against the SDF which for years was a U.S. ally battling Islamic State.

More than 100 vehicles crossed the border into Iraq early on Monday from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal with Washington.

The truce expires late on Tuesday, just after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is set to discuss next steps in the region at a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that, while the U.S. withdrawal was under way, some troops were still with partner forces near oilfields and there had been discussions about keeping some of them there.

He said that was one option and no decision had been made “with regard to numbers or anything like that”. The Pentagon’s job was to look at different options, he added.

“We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are)located right near that area,” Esper said. “The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS (Islamic State) and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”

Trump’s shift has opened a new chapter in Syria’s more than eight-year war and prompted a rush by Turkey and by the Damascus government and its ally Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.

Trump’s decision has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops in a region rich in oil reserves and farmland.

The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Trump was now leaning in favor of a new military plan to keep about 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“NECESSARY STEPS”

Turkey is seeking to set up a “safe zone” as a buffer against the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

Erdogan has said Ankara will resume its assault in Syria when the deadline expires on Tuesday if the SDF has not pulled back from its proposed zone, which spans much of the border.

“We will take up this process with Mr Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps” in northeastern Syria, Erdogan told a forum in Istanbul hosted by broadcaster TRT World on Monday, without elaborating.

Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the “safe zone”, prompting criticism from Iran.

“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference on Monday broadcast live on state TV.

“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means … Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Echoing such concerns, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia believed long-term regional security could only be achieved by restoring Syrian unity and also by taking into account the interests of all the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

He reiterated that Putin and Erdogan would discuss Turkey’s military offensive in their talks on Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that 12 Syrian prisons holding foreign militants as well as eight refugee camps had been left unguarded as a result of Turkey’s military operation.

Turkey’s nearly two-week old offensive has displaced some 300,000 people and led to 120 casualties among civilians and 470 among SDF fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.

On Monday, Reuters video images showed armored vehicles carrying U.S. troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.

About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, an Iraqi Kurdish security source said.

Turkish security sources said on Monday Kurdish YPG forces were advancing toward Al Hasakah, which is south of the proposed safe zone, adding some 125 vehicles had already left. They also said more than 80 Kurdish militants had been captured alive or surrendered to Turkish forces.

(Additional reporting by Idrees tktk Can Sezer and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Exclusive: U.S. carried out secret cyber strike on Iran in wake of Saudi oil attack: officials

Exclusive: U.S. carried out secret cyber strike on Iran in wake of Saudi oil attack: officials
By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States carried out a secret cyber operation against Iran in the wake of the Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh blame on Tehran, two U.S. officials have told Reuters.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation took place in late September and took aim at Tehran’s ability to spread “propaganda.”

One of the officials said the strike affected physical hardware, but did not provide further details.

The attack highlights how President Donald Trump’s administration has been trying to counter what it sees as Iranian aggression without spiraling into a broader conflict.

Asked about Reuters reporting on Wednesday, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi said: “They must have dreamt it,” Fars news agency reported.

The U.S. strike appears more limited than other such operations against Iran this year after the downing of an American drone in June and an alleged attack by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on oil tankers in the Gulf in May.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Germany have publicly blamed the Sept. 14 attack on Iran, which denied involvement in the strike. The Iran-aligned Houthi militant group in Yemen claimed responsibility.

Publicly, the Pentagon has responded by sending thousands of additional troops and equipment to bolster Saudi defenses – the latest U.S. deployment to the region this year.

The Pentagon declined to comment about the cyber strike.

“As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence, or planning,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith.

GULF TENSIONS RISE SHARPLY

The impact of the attack, if any, could take months to determine, but cyber strikes are seen as a less-provocative option below the threshold of war.

“You can do damage without killing people or blowing things up; it adds an option to the toolkit that we didn’t have before and our willingness to use it is important,” said James Lewis, a cyber expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lewis added that it may not be possible to deter Iranian behavior with even conventional military strikes.

Tensions in the Gulf have escalated sharply since May 2018, when Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran that put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions.

It was unclear whether there have been other U.S. cyber attacks since the one in late September.

Iran has used such tactics against the United States. This month, a hacking group that appears linked to the Iranian government tried to infiltrate email accounts related Trump’s re-election campaign.

Over 30 days in August and September, the group, which Microsoft dubbed “Phosphorous,” made more than 2,700 attempts to identify consumer accounts, then attacked 241 of them.

Tehran is also thought to be a major player in spreading disinformation.

Last year a Reuters investigation found more than 70 websites that push Iranian propaganda to 15 countries, in an operation that cybersecurity experts, social media firms and journalists are only starting to uncover.

Tensions with Iran have been high since the Sept. 14 attack. Tehran has said an Iranian tanker was hit by rockets in the Red Sea last week and warned that there would be consequences.

On Monday, President Hassan Rouhani reiterated his country’s policy toward the Trump administration, ruling out bilateral talks unless Washington returns to the landmark nuclear deal and lifts crippling U.S. economic sanctions.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Jack Stubbs in London Editing by Gerry Doyle, William Maclean)

U.S. concerned about some Hong Kong protest tactics, heavier China hand: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The senior U.S. defense official for Asia said on Tuesday that the United States has some concerns about some of the tactics used by demonstrators in Hong Kong but was also concerned about the heavier hand Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have used against protests in the territory.

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said the United States was “100 percent” behind those in Hong Kong who were speaking out for respect for fundamental rights guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

“Certainly we have some concern about some of the tactics that the protesters have been using and may use, and I think in single instances where that becomes a real problem we would point that out,” he told a conference organized by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute.

“But I think in general, we are concerned about the heavier hand that Beijing has taken and the Hong Kong authorities have taken with what we regard as legitimate activities on the part of the people of Hong Kong,” Schriver added.

He said the Hong Kong police and authorities had historically acted to uphold the law and the territory had a very good judicial system.

“What we are concerned about is the heavier hand from Beijing and how that can be distorted and turned into something more repressive,” Schriver said

“The general trend is concerning, that we’re seeing less autonomy, more influence from Beijing, heavier hand from the authorities there, and in general an erosion of the things that were promised the people of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong has been rocked by four months of unrest, with massive marches and at times violent protests involving tear gas, petrol bombs and live rounds, over concerns Beijing is tightening its grip on the city and eroding democratic rights.

Earlier on Tuesday, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam ruled out making any concessions to pro-democracy protesters in the face of escalating violence, which police said was now “life threatening,” citing the detonation of a small bomb.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Russia, China accuse U.S. of stoking tensions with missile test

FILE PHOTO: National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia and China accused the United States on Tuesday of stoking military tensions by testing a ground-launched cruise missile, but the foreign ministry in Moscow said it would not be drawn into an arms race.

The Pentagon said on Monday it had tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, its first such test since the demise of a landmark nuclear pact this month.

The United States formally withdrew from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia on Aug. 2 after accusing Moscow of violating it, a charge dismissed by the Kremlin.

The text would have been banned under the INF, which prohibited land-based missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,400 miles, reducing the ability of both countries to launch a nuclear strike at short notice.

Washington had “obviously taken the course of escalating military tensions,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said

Russia would, however, not allow itself “to be pulled into a costly arms race” and did not plan to deploy new missiles unless the United States did so first, he was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.

The Kremlin said the U.S. missile test showed that Washington had long been preparing to exit the nuclear pact.

“It is simply not possible to prepare for such tests in a few weeks or a few months. This …shows that it was not Russia, but the United States with its actions that brought the breakdown of the INF,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

China also expressed concern.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the test showed the United States was stoking a new arms race and confrontation, which would have a serious negative impact on regional and global security.

“We advise the U.S. side to abandon outdated notions of Cold War thinking and zero-sum games, and exercise restraint in developing arms,” Geng told a daily news briefing.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)

U.S. to stop training Turkish F-35 pilots because of Russia deal: sources

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The United States has decided to stop accepting any more Turkish pilots who had planned to train in the United States on F-35 fighter jets, three U.S. officials said, in a sign of an escalating dispute over Ankara’s plans to purchase Russian air defenses. The two NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s order for Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which Washington says poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.

The United States says Turkey cannot have both, but had avoided taking steps to curtail or halt planned training of Turkish pilots in the program, a reprisal that could be seen as an embarrassment in Turkey.

The three U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters this week on condition of anonymity, left open the possibility the decision could be reversed, perhaps if Turkey altered its plans. They said the decision so far only applied to upcoming rounds of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews who would have normally trained in the United States.

Reuters was first to report the U.S. decision on pilots, which traders said pressured the Turkish lira on Friday.

A spokesman for Turkey’s Defense Ministry declined comment on Friday.

The Pentagon declined comment on whether it would accept new Turkish pilots. But it has stressed discussions are taking place with Ankara on potentially selling Turkey Patriot missile defenses, which are made by Raytheon Co.

The United States also has threatened to halt training of Turkish pilots and maintenance crews already in the United States, two of the officials said. Reuters reported last week that the step was being seriously considered.

One official said the pilots in the United States could be removed by the end of July.

Four Turkish pilots are currently training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Two additional Turkish pilots are there working as instructors. Beyond those six Turkish officers, there are an additional 20 Turkish aircraft maintainers at the base undergoing training as well, the U.S. military says.

Turkey has expressed an interest in buying 100 of the fighters, which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

If Turkey were removed from the F-35 program, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two allies, experts said.

Strains in their ties already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey.

The disclosure of the decision on the pilots follows signs that Turkey is moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on May 22 that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400, and that Russian personnel may go to Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.

Erdogan said the United States had not “given us an offer as good as the S-400s.”

The Turkish lira declined as much as 1.5% on Friday before recovering some losses. The currency has shed nearly 10% of its value against the dollar this year in part on fraying diplomatic ties and the risk of U.S. sanctions if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400s.

Kathryn Wheelbarger, one of the Pentagon’s most senior policy officials, said last week that Turkey’s completion of the transaction with Russia would be “devastating,” dealing heavy blows to the F-35 program and to Turkish interoperability within the NATO alliance.

“The S-400 is a Russian system designed to shoot down an aircraft like the F-35,” said Wheelbarger, an acting assistant secretary of defense. “And it is inconceivable to imagine Russia not taking advantage of that (intelligence) collection opportunity.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mike Stone and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and Howard Goller)

Pentagon mulling military request to send 5,000 troops to Middle East: officials

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge sail in the Arabian Sea May 17, 2019. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Wilbur/Handout via REUTERS.

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Defense is considering a U.S. military request to send about 5,000 additional troops to the Middle East amid increasing tensions with Iran, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Tehran and Washington have this month been escalating rhetoric against each other, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to try to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero and beef up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what he said were Iranian threats.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the request had been made by U.S. Central Command, but added that it was not clear whether the Pentagon would approve the request.

The Pentagon regularly receives – and declines – requests for additional resources from U.S. combatant commands throughout the world.

One of the officials said the requested troops would be defensive in nature.

It is unclear if any specific request will ultimately be presented to the White House. The request for 5,000 additional troops was first reported by Reuters.

This appeared to be the latest request for additional resources in the face of what U.S. officials have said are credible threats from Iran against U.S. forces and American interests in the Middle East.

The United States has not publicly shown any evidence of what the specific intelligence on the Iranian threat is.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

“As a matter of longstanding policy, we are not going to discuss or speculate on potential future plans and requests for forces,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said on Wednesday.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday that while threats from Iran in the Middle East remained high, deterrence measures taken by the Pentagon had “put on hold” the potential for attacks on Americans.

The U.S. military accelerated the deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East, and sent bombers and Patriot missiles to the region earlier this month in response to what Washington said were troubling indications of possible preparations for an attack by Iran.

U.S. government sources told Reuters last week they believe Iran encouraged Houthi militants or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry out attacks on tanker ships off the United Arab Emirates.

Trump has warned that Iran would be met with “great force” if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that Iran’s youth will witness the demise of Israel and American civilization.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and G Crosse)

White House reviews military plans against Iran: New York Times

FILE PHOTO: An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Red Sea, May 10, 2019. Courtesy Dan Snow/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. defense official has presented an updated military plan to President Donald Trump’s administration that envisions sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported on Monday.

Citing unnamed administration officials, the Times said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented the plan at a meeting of Trump’s top security aides on Thursday.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Pentagon declined to comment.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have intensified since Trump pulled out of a 2015 international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities and imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Tehran.

Trump wants to force Tehran to agree to a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

Iran has said the U.S. is engaging in “psychological warfare,” called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat and said it will not allow its oil exports to be halted.

The Times said among those attending the Thursday meeting were Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford.

Several plans were detailed, the Times said, and “the uppermost option called for deploying 120,000 troops, which would take weeks or months to complete.”

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech; Editing by Michael Perry)

Pentagon warns on risk of Chinese submarines in Arctic

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon in Washington, U.S., is seen from aboard Air Force One, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic region could pave the way for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attack, the Pentagon said in a report released on Thursday.

The assessment is included in the U.S. military’s annual report to Congress on China’s armed forces and follows Beijing’s publication of its first official Arctic policy white paper in June.

In that paper, China outlined plans to develop shipping lanes opened up by global warming to form a “Polar Silk Road” – building on President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.

China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. That has prompted concerns from Arctic states over Beijing’s long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, starting on Monday, which comes amid concerns over China’s increased commercial interests in the Arctic.

The Pentagon report noted that Denmark has expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station and a satellite ground station, renovate airports and expand mining.

“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report said.

The Pentagon report noted that China’s military has made modernizing its submarine fleet a high priority. China’s navy operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines, the report said.

“The speed of growth of the submarine force has slowed and (it) will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020,” the report predicted.

The report said China had built six Jin-class submarines, with four operational and two under construction at Huludao Shipyard.

In a January report, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Chinese navy would need a minimum of five Jin-class submarines to maintain a continuous nuclear deterrence at sea.

The United States and its allies, in turn, are expanding their anti-submarine naval deployments across East Asia. This includes stepped-up patrols of America’s advanced, sub-hunting P-8 Poseidon planes out of Singapore and Japan.

TAIWAN CONTINGENCY

The expansion of China’s submarine forces is just one element of a broad, and costly, modernization of its military, which U.S. experts say is designed largely to deter any action by America’s armed forces.

Although Beijing’s official defense budget for 2018 was $175 billion, the Pentagon estimated that China’s budget actually topped $200 billion, when including research, development and foreign weapons procurement. It estimated that China’s official defense budget would likely grow to about $260 billion by 2022.

Much of China’s military doctrine is focused on self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.

On Jan. 2, Xi said in a speech that China reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”

The Pentagon report outlined a number of potential scenarios that China might take if Beijing decides to use military force on Taiwan, including a comprehensive campaign “designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification or unification dialogue.”

But the U.S. analysis appeared to downplay prospects for a large-scale amphibious Chinese invasion, saying that could strain its armed forces and invite international intervention. It also noted the possibility of limited missile strikes.

“China could use missile attacks and precision air strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s resolve,” the report said.

China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and worked to isolate Taiwan internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.

It has also strongly objected to U.S. warship passages through the Taiwan Strait, which have greatly increased in frequency in the past year.

Taiwan’s military is significantly smaller than China’s, a gap that the Pentagon noted is growing year by year.

Recognizing the disparity, the Pentagon report noted: “Taiwan has stated that it is working to develop new concepts and capabilities for asymmetric warfare.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler)

Sexual assaults spike in U.S. military, hit new record: Pentagon

Women Soldiers Image by Mario Cesar on Pixiebay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department said on Thursday the estimated number of sexual assaults in the military climbed nearly 38 percent in 2018 compared with a survey two years earlier, data that critics say laid bare broken Pentagon promises of a crackdown.

The Pentagon said there were 6,053 reports of sexual assaults last year, according to an anonymous, bi-annual survey. It is a record number and the highest since the U.S. military began collecting this kind of survey data in 2004.

Taking into consideration unreported cases as well, the military survey estimated 20,500 male and female service members experienced some kind of sexual assault last year. The estimated number in 2016 was 14,900.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic presidential candidate who has been an advocate for overhauling rules for prosecution of sex crimes in the U.S. military, said the data made clear that it was time for Congress to act.

“Sexual assaults continue to increase dramatically while the number of cases going to trial goes down,” she said. “The status quo is not working.”

The report found that the odds of a military woman between the ages of 17 and 20 being sexually assaulted was one in eight.

“It is time for Congress to stop giving the failing military leadership the benefit of doubt and pass real reform empowering military prosecutors. Enough is enough,” said Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief Air Force prosecutor who now leads the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

The Pentagon said it was going to make changes to deal with the spike.

“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards

and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a memo. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head-on. We must, and will, do better.”

In a briefing on Thursday, a senior official told reporters that the Pentagon was looking to make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)

Special Report: China’s furtive underwater nukes test the Pentagon

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) prepares to transit alongside the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Wally Schirra (T-AKE 8) during a replenishment-at-sea during routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands May 9, 2015. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto/Handout via REUTERS

By Greg Torode and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Recent visitors to the bay surrounding a submarine base on the southern coast of China’s Hainan Island describe a curious nocturnal phenomenon. Powerful spotlights are sometimes trained directly on the ocean frontages of neighboring hotels at night, making visibility out to sea virtually impossible. Some of the lights are mounted on land and others on passing naval patrol boats.

“The effect is incredible,” said one recent visitor. “The glare is so great you can hardly stand it on the balcony. You go inside and draw the curtains tight.”

The blinding lights cannot obscure something of intense interest to the world’s military intelligence agencies: evidence that China has made a breakthrough in its drive to rival America and Russia as a nuclear arms power.

A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Satellite imagery reveals the regular presence of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines at the strategic base near the resort city of Sanya. Specialized surface warships and aircraft designed to protect the subs are prowling key waterways off the coast. Facilities at the base appear to have been built to store and load ballistic missiles. Antenna arrays that support the hunt for foreign submarines have appeared on Chinese-held islands in the hotly contested South China Sea. And a veteran submariner has been appointed to command Chinese forces in the south of the country.

Taken together, this means China has a force of missile submarines that can launch nuclear attacks from beneath the waves and now appear to be heading out on patrols, according to serving and retired naval officers, diplomats and security analysts. That gives Beijing something it has until recently lacked: a more reliable “second strike” capability if its land-based nuclear arsenal comes under attack.

After six decades of battling to master complex and challenging subsea military technologies, China has joined the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France in the nuclear ballistic missile submarine club. In its most explicit assessment so far of this Chinese capability, the Pentagon in its latest annual report on China’s military, published in August, said that Beijing now has a “credible” and “viable” sea-based nuclear deterrent.

An effective fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines, known as SSBNs, marks a dramatic boost to China’s nuclear capabilities. Each of China’s four Jin-class submarines is armed with up to 12 ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead with an estimated range of 7,200 kilometers (about 4,500 miles), according to the Pentagon. That would put the United States within striking distance from the Western Pacific. Analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate these missiles could fly at least 8,000 kilometers. The U.S. believes China has up to 100 nuclear missiles based on land.

Beijing’s enhanced nuclear capability is one of the hallmarks of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitious revamping of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest fighting force. China’s nuclear submarine fleet, Western strategists say, has added to the challenge that the increasingly powerful Chinese military poses to U.S. dominance in Asia.

“The opposing side can never be exactly sure that it knows where all of the submarines are,” said Peter Horobin, a retired Australian submarine commander and veteran of the Cold War battles to detect and monitor Soviet subs.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon did not respond to questions from Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: A missile is launched from a Chinese submarine during a China-Russia joint military exercise in eastern China's Shandong peninsula, August 23, 2005. REUTERS/China Newsphoto/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A missile is launched from a Chinese submarine during a China-Russia joint military exercise in eastern China’s Shandong peninsula, August 23, 2005. REUTERS/China Newsphoto/File Photo

It is still unclear if the Chinese are deploying fully armed submarines to maintain a round-the-clock deterrent, as the other ballistic missile submarine powers do. Some analysts doubt China has advanced that far.

But the United States and its allies are behaving as if China has. Western military officials say privately that in operational terms, America and its allies – including Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom – are already attempting to track the movements of China’s missile submarines as if they are fully armed and on deterrence patrols.

Asked about their role in tracking Chinese subs, Japan and the United Kingdom said they don’t comment on operational details.

“China’s military modernization is consistent with its rapid economic growth,” the Australian Department of Defense said. “As with all countries, we encourage China to be transparent about its military capabilities and strategic intentions to provide greater assurance to its neighbors.”

GROWING STOCKPILE

“An armed Jin-class SSBN will give China an important strategic capability that must be countered,” Admiral Harry Harris, then head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a congressional committee last year.

That response appears to be happening. The United States and its allies are expanding their anti-submarine naval deployments across East Asia. This includes stepped-up patrols of America’s advanced, sub-hunting P-8 Poseidon planes out of Singapore and Japan.

With its relatively small force of nuclear missiles, Beijing has always worried that it might be vulnerable to a debilitating first strike. These fears were magnified as Chinese military planners watched Washington employ precision-guided weapons in conflicts like the Gulf wars, Afghanistan, Syria and the Balkans.

As it strengthens and improves its nuclear arsenal, Beijing is the only major nuclear power to be adding warheads to its stockpiles. China is developing an air-launched ballistic missile and plans to build a long-range stealth bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons. With the sea-based second-strike deterrent in place, those programs suggest Beijing eventually intends to field a triad of air, sea and land-based nuclear weapons like the United States and Russia.

In the past two decades, the PLA Rocket Force, the service which controls China’s nuclear and conventional missiles, has invested heavily in expanding its stockpile of nuclear warheads and boosted the range and accuracy of the missiles that deliver them. It has also hardened the protection of its silo-based nuclear weapons, according to reports in China’s state-controlled media. The Pentagon and official Chinese military publications have reported that China has also deployed modern, road-mobile missiles that are more difficult for an adversary to find and attack.

Still, China lags far behind the United States and Russia in overall nuclear firepower. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China has a total of 280 nuclear warheads. China does not disclose how many of its warheads are deployed and ready for conflict. The United States has 1,750 deployed warheads and Russia 1,600, the institute’s 2018 report said. The United States and Russia each have thousands more warheads held in stockpiles, according to the report.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, said he had yet to see hard intelligence suggesting China had placed fully armed ballistic missiles on its submarines at sea, despite the intense activity. Just because the submarines exist, he said, “that doesn’t mean that they have the weapons aboard the vessels.”

While acknowledging that China has significantly enhanced its nuclear deterrence, the Pentagon isn’t convinced that Chinese subs are yet conducting around-the-clock patrols. In a January report, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Chinese navy would need a minimum of five Jin-class submarines to maintain a continuous nuclear deterrence at sea. China now has four.

UNDERSEA DUELS

A fleet of nuclear missile submarines hidden in the vast expanses of the ocean would help offset Beijing’s nuclear shortcomings, say Chinese and Western strategists.

Chinese naval designers and nuclear technicians have been working to build a force of nuclear missile submarines since the late 1950s. A single vessel was launched in the 1980s, but it was never fully operational. This submarine served as a test bed as Chinese technicians and designers struggled to overcome problems with nuclear propulsion technology, missiles and excessive noise that would have made the vessels easier for an adversary to detect and target.

To maximize its second-strike capability, China’s missile subs would need to be stealthy enough to go undetected as they sail to their patrol areas in the open ocean. U.S. and other foreign naval analysts say the Jin-class submarines are a sharp improvement over China’s earlier efforts, but they remain less stealthy than their U.S., Russian, French and British counterparts.

The 11,000-tonne Jin-class submarines are stationed on the southern coast of China’s Hainan Island, close to deep water channels leading into and out of the South China Sea. The geography of China’s coastal waters has forced Beijing to base its missile submarines in this area, astride one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.

In the north, the Yellow Sea is too shallow to conceal big, ballistic missile submarines. The East China Sea is deeper but it’s confined by the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s island chain and Taiwan.

And Japanese and U.S. forces can deploy advanced anti-submarine warfare ships and aircraft based in Japan to closely monitor these waters and the channels that pass out into the Western Pacific, where the submarines are ultimately headed. The Chinese need to reach these waters to be in a position to fire on the United States.

The South China Sea, by contrast, is much bigger and in parts deeper, making it more suitable for concealed submarine operations, according to Western submariners with extensive experience of patrolling in this area.

China would need to get its submarines out of Hainan, past surveillance and into seas east of the Philippines for their missiles to be in striking range of the United States. This is a key reason why China has gone to such lengths to reclaim and fortify islands and reefs in the South China Sea that are expanding Beijing’s control over this area, according to Western submariners and military attaches.

The sub fleet’s vulnerability to detection also explains China’s extreme sensitivity to the surveillance operations of the United States and its allies in these waters. A Chinese destroyer sailed within 45 meters of the American destroyer USS Decatur in late September, as the American warship patrolled in the Spratlys, a highly contested island chain where China has expanded its foothold in recent years. It was the latest in a series of close encounters in the past decade.

China now appears to be on guard against foreign subs attempting to detect and shadow its ballistic missile fleet. As China’s Jin-class vessels put to sea, they appear to be flanked by protective screens of surface warships and aircraft on station to track foreign submarines, according to military officers and analysts familiar with allied surveillance of the Chinese coast.

Serving and former senior naval officers also point to the extensive, frequent deployments of the Chinese navy’s latest Type 056A corvettes into key waters south of Japan and east of the Philippines. The Type 056A is China’s most advanced submarine hunter. It is able to tow sonar arrays and other listening equipment deep beneath the surface to detect enemy submarines – advanced technology that China did not have just five years ago.

China has also installed an array of sensors, antennas and satellite communications installations on islands in the Spratlys, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The PLA is tracking the foreign undersea hunters from the air, too. It has formed a squadron of Y-8GX6 aircraft on Hainan with the ability to comb vast areas of the sea surface for magnetic anomalies. The turboprop planes have already been seen landing on Woody Island, China’s key offshore holding in the South China Sea. These patrols are not the infrequent exercises of the past, but now near-constant deployments, shadowing foreign warships as well.

“We’re looking at them looking for us,” said one Western military attache.

FURTIVE FORCE

The submarine base near Sanya is now under the direct control of the Central Military Commission, the top military decision-making body, chaired by Xi Jinping himself. The new communications installations in the South China Sea have helped knit together the new command structure, allowing tighter control from Beijing, right down to individual vessels.

In 2017, Beijing appointed a veteran submariner, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, to head the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for the South China Sea. His promotion was a clear indication of the importance China attaches to supporting nuclear sub-operations, according to Chinese naval experts. Yuan is the first naval officer to head a command of this type, a promotion that’s part of a sweeping overhaul of the military structure by Xi Jinping.

Commercial satellite images of the submarine base give insight into the furtive force stationed there. They appear to show missile submarines regularly tied up alongside long piers in the harbor. Satellite images from Google Earth in June last year show what appear to be three Jin-class missile submarines at the base.

The vessels have a distinctive shape, with a hump-like structure that houses the missile tubes behind the sail, the vertical structure that rises from a submarine’s hull. Clearly visible in the images: a partially submerged entrance to what appear to be underground submarine pens, beneath a hill next to the harbor.

Construction at the base near Sanya also points to the PLA’s ability to stealthily arm submarine-launched missiles with nuclear warheads.

Western intelligence analysts familiar with satellite imagery of the area say a covered railway has been completed that runs into a hillside bunker – the suspected warhead arsenal. The railway, in turn, is linked by tunnels to the pens built for the submarines. This, they say, means the missiles can be armed and loaded on the submarines without detection.

(Reporting Greg Torode and David Lague in Hong Kong. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)