Trump administration taking $3.8 billion more from military for Mexico border wall

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department sent Congress a request to shift nearly $4 billion from the military budget to pay for a wall on the border with Mexico, a central promise of President Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House four years ago and bid this year for a second term.

Lawmakers said they received a request on Thursday to reprogram more than $3.8 billion from funding for the National Guard and weapons programs, setting the stage for a possible confrontation with Democrats.

Democratic aides said $1.5 billion would come from the National Guard, and the rest from funds for procurement, including the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet program, Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft, Boeing Co P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and shipbuilding.

Congressional Democrats, who opposed Trump’s past diversion of billions of dollars in military spending to the border wall project, said the decision was dangerous and misguided.

“President Trump is once again disrespecting the separation of powers and endangering our security by raiding military resources to pay for his wasteful border wall,” Democratic Representatives Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, and Pete Visclosky, chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement.

The criticism was bipartisan.

The top Republican on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry, said the move by the Pentagon was “contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority.”

A senior Pentagon official said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had approved about $3.8 billion in funding being diverted to build 177 miles (290 km) of border wall.

Last month, the Pentagon received a request from within the Trump administration to build roughly 270 miles (435 km) of wall on the border, which would have cost about $5.5 billion.

“The transfer of funds is based on what the law allows and that the items to be funded are a higher priority than the items (from) which the funds were transferred,” Robert Salesses, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration, told Reuters.

The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, said it would challenge the latest border wall transfer.

The Trump administration has vowed to build at least 400 miles (640 km) of wall along the border by November 2020, when Americans will vote for president. In his 2016 campaign, Trump said Mexico would pay for the wall. The Mexican government has consistently refused to do so.

Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, particularly for immigrants who come across the southern border with Mexico, have been a signature of his political campaign and first term in the White House.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Mike Stone and Ted Hesson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

About 350 U.S. evacuees from virus-hit Chinese city land at California air base

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two planes carrying about 350 Americans out of Wuhan, China, arrived at a U.S. military base in California on Wednesday, in Washington’s latest effort to bring its citizens home from the epicenter of the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.

The U.S. travelers on two State Department-chartered flights will be quarantined for 14 days after landing, the U.S. Defense Department said in a statement.

The jets landed at Travis Air Force Base, about midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, several local media reported, showing images of two planes on the tarmac.

One of the planes will continue on to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego after refueling, the Pentagon said. Itwas due to arrive at Miramar between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Pacific time (between 1400 and 1700 GMT), a Marine Corps spokesman said in a statement.

The State Department separately said it may stage additional flights on Thursday but gave no other details.

KGO television showed video of people in white coverall suits getting off the plane in the predawn darkness at Travis Air Force Base.

The evacuees will be housed in a hotel on the base, the base said in a statement on its Facebook page.

“A safety cordon will be established, away from residential housing, to ensure the Travis mission can safely continue, the privacy of the evacuees can be enforced,” the statement said.

The United States and other countries are seeking to evacuate their citizens from China, where the coronavirus outbreak has killed 490 people and infected more than 23,000. Two deaths have been reported outside of the mainland.

U.S. health officials have reported 11 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States so far, including two person-to-person transmissions.

The Trump administration declared a public health emergency on Jan. 31, and announced the extraordinary measures of barring the entry of foreign nationals who have recently visited China and imposing a mandatory two-week quarantine for travelers from China’s most affected province of Hubei.

The State Department issued a “Do Not Travel” to China advisory to U.S. citizens, advising them to return on commercial flights if possible, though many commercial airlines have suspended flights to or from major Chinese cities.

U.S. officials have also restricted flights from China to 11 designated airports deemed capable of carrying out enhanced health screening.

Nearly 200 Americans were evacuated late last month, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, and were flown to March Air Force Base east of Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Bernadette Baum and Bill Berkrot)

China installs cruise missiles on South China Sea outposts: CNBC

FILE PHOTO: Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea, U.S. news network CNBC reported on Wednesday, citing sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports.

The installations, if confirmed, would mark the first Chinese missile deployments in the Spratly Islands, where several Asian countries including Vietnam and Taiwan have rival claims.

China has made no mention of any missile deployments but says its military facilities in the Spratlys are purely defensive, and that it can do what it likes on its own territory.

China’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest report.

The foreign ministry said China has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and that its necessary defensive deployments were for national security needs and not aimed at any country.

“Those who do not intend to be aggressive have no need to be worried or scared,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

China “hopes relevant parties can objectively and calmly view this”, she added.

CNBC quoted unnamed sources as saying that according to U.S. intelligence assessments, the missiles were moved to Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef within the past 30 days.

The U.S. Defense Department, which opposes China’s installation of military facilities on outposts it has built up in the South China Sea, declined comment. “We don’t comment on matters of intelligence,” a spokesman said.

Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said deploying missiles on the outposts would be important.

“These would be the first missiles in the Spratlys, either surface to air, or anti-ship,” he said.

He added that such deployments were expected as China built missile shelters on the reefs last year and already deployed such missile systems on Woody Island further to the north.

Poling said it would be a major step on China’s road to dominating the South China Sea, a key global trade route.

“Before this, if you were one of the other claimants … you knew that China was monitoring your every move. Now you will know that you’re operating inside Chinese missile range. That’s a pretty strong, if implicit, threat,” he said.

CNBC said the YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles allowed China to strike vessels within 295 nautical miles. It said the HQ-9B long-range, surface-to-air missiles could target aircraft, drones and cruise missiles within 160 nautical miles.

Last month, U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated to head U.S. Pacific Command, said China’s “forward operating bases” in the South China Sea appeared complete.

“The only thing lacking are the deployed forces,” he said. Once these were added, “China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania”.

Davidson said China could use the bases to challenge the U.S. regional presence, and “would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.

“China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Darren Schuettler)

Missiles ‘will be coming’ to Syria, Trump warns Russia

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, declaring that missiles “will be coming” and lambasting Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump was reacting to a warning from Russia on Tuesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria over the deadly assault on a rebel enclave would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump tweeted, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad.

In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post that “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not towards the lawful government”.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said any U.S. missile strike could be an attempt to destroy evidence of the reported gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, for which Damascus and Moscow have denied any responsibility.

In Damascus, the foreign ministry accused the United States, which has supported some rebel groups in the Syrian civil war, of using “fabrications and lies” as an excuse to hit its territory.

“We are not surprised by such a thoughtless escalation by a regime like the United States regime, which sponsored terrorism in Syria and still does,” the state news agency SANA cited an official source in the ministry as saying.

After the Douma attack, the insurgent group dug in there – Jaish al-Islam – finally agreed to withdraw. That sealed a major victory for Assad in the war, crushing a protracted rebellion in the eastern Ghouta region near the capital Damascus.

White House officials did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for more detail about Trump’s remarks. The U.S. Defense Department said it “does not comment on potential future military actions”.

Trump’s decision to disclose his decision to strike as well as the kind of weaponry to be used in a future military operation is likely to frustrate military planners, who hold such information closely.

He had repeatedly said he would not telegraph military moves toward foes, including North Korea and Islamic State. On Monday Trump said he would make a decision within 48 hours on a strong, forceful response to the attack in Syria, later telling reporters: “When I will not say, because I don’t like talking about timing.”

43 DEAD FROM CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPOSURE -WHO

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that 43 people had died in Saturday’s attack on Douma from “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”, and more than 500 in all had been treated.

Moscow’s threat to down U.S. missiles came from its ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said he was referring to a statement by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian armed forces chief of staff.

Zasypkin also said that any hostilities with Washington should be avoided and Moscow was ready for negotiations.

But his remarks could raise fears of direct conflict for the first time between major powers backing opposing sides in Syria’s protracted civil war.

Oil prices hit their highest level in more than three years on Wednesday after Trump’s threat to unleash missiles, and U.S. stock index futures fell sharply over rising concern about possible Russian-U.S. conflict over Syria.

The Kremlin said earlier on Wednesday it hoped all sides involved in Syria would avoid doing anything to destabilize an already volatile situation in the Middle East, and made clear it strongly opposed any U.S. strike on Damascus.

STANDOFF

Moscow and Washington stymied attempts by each other at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Trump canceled on Tuesday a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus instead on talks with Western allies about possible military action to punish Assad.

Zasypkin, the Russian ambassador, made his comments to Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. “If there is a strike by the Americans, then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” he said in Arabic.

The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and its devastating air power has helped him wrest back large areas of territory from rebels since 2015.

Zasypkin also said a clash between Russia and the United States over Syria “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations”.

MISSILE SALVO FROM MEDITERRANEAN?

Any U.S. strike is likely to involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defence systems. A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

With tensions growing, pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria over the next 72 hours.

Eurocontrol said that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used within that period and there could be intermittent disruptions of radio navigation equipment.

Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

Both Russia and Iran, Assad’s other main ally, have warned his enemies against military action in recent days, underlining their commitment to the Syrian government they have armed and supported through years of conflict.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said during a visit to Damascus on Tuesday that an Israeli attack on an air base in Syria earlier this week would “not remain without response”.

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

RISK OF “UNCONTROLLABLE ESCALATION”

On Monday, U.N. Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura cited the air base strike along with other recent events in Syria in a briefing to the Security Council, cautioning against a “situation of uncontrollable escalation”.

Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 jet in February during a previous bombing run against what Israel described as Iranian-backed positions in Syria.

Last year, the United States carried out strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base after another toxic gas attack on a rebel-controlled pocket.

The U.S. and Russian militaries have sought to avoid conflict in Syria, notably last year in the Euphrates River Valley where they supported rival sides in the campaign against Islamic State militants.

However, U.S. forces in February killed or injured hundreds of Russian contractors fighting on Assad’s side during a confrontation in Deir al-Zor province.

SYMPTOMS OF POISON GAS ATTACK

The WHO said that among the more than 500 people treated for symptoms of gas poisoning in Douma, “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed”.

France and Britain discussed with the Trump administration how to respond to the Douma attack. Both stressed that the culprit still needed to be confirmed.

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Assad’s government had been asked to make necessary arrangements for an OPCW investigation team to visit shortly.

The mission will aim to determine whether banned munitions were used but not assign blame.

Despite the international revulsion over chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents in Syria is only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since the war erupted in 2011.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Steve Holland, Idrees Ali, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Jamie Freed in Singapore, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by David Stamp)

SpaceX rocket lifts off on first launch for U.S. military

SpaceX rocket lifts off on first launch for U.S. military

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Florida on Monday, carrying the company’s first satellite for the U.S. military, and breaking a 10-year monopoly held by a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The 23-story tall rocket took off from its seaside launch pad at Kennedy Space Center at 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT.)

It will put into orbit a classified satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an agency within the Defense Department that operates the nation’s spy satellites.

Nine minutes after takeoff, the rocket’s main section touched down on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA’s spaceport.

Last month, Space Exploration Technologies Corp flew its first recovered booster on a second mission, a key step in company founder Elon Musk’s quest to cut launch costs.

The National Reconnaissance Office bought SpaceX’s launch services via a contract with Ball Aerospace, a Colorado-based satellite and instrument builder. The terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Musk battled for years to break the monopoly on the military’s launch business held by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force in 2014 over its exclusive multibillion-dollar contract with United Launch Alliance. The company later dropped the suit after the military agreed to open more launch contacts to competitive bidding.

SpaceX has since won two launch contracts from the Air Force to send up Global Positioning System satellites in 2018 and 2019.

Monday’s launch was the 34th mission for SpaceX and the fifth of more than 20 flights planned for this year.

The privately owned firm, based in Hawthorne, California,  has a backlog of more than 70 missions, worth about $10 billion.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

Pentagon says it can protect U.S., allies from North Korean missile threats

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington,

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department, reacting to North Korea’s statement that it plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, said on Tuesday it was confident in its ability to protect U.S. allies and the U.S. homeland from threats from Pyongyang.

“We have a ballistic missile defense … umbrella that we’re confident in for the region and to protect the United States homeland,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told a news briefing two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country was close to testing an ICBM.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by David Alexander)

China readying World’s Largest radio telescope to explore space

The last panel of China's world largest radio telescope named "FAST", is installed in Pingtang county

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Sunday hoisted the final piece into position on what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, which it will use to explore space and help in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, state media said.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is the size of 30 football fields and has been hewed out of a mountain in the poor southwestern province of Guizhou.

Scientists will now start debugging and trials of the telescope, Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope, told the official Xinhua news agency.

“The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life,” the report paraphrased Zheng as saying.

The 1.2-billion yuan ($180 million) radio telescope would be a global leader for the next one to two decades, Zheng added.

The telescope, which has taken about five years to build, is expected to begin operations in September.

Advancing China’s space program is a priority for Beijing, with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.

China’s ambitions include putting a man on the moon by 2036 and building a space station, work on which has already begun.

China insists its program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities, saying it is pursuing activities aimed to prevent adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)