Iran vessels make ‘high speed intercept’ of U.S. ship

Footage taken aboard the USS Nitze of Islamic Revolutionary Guard vessels

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessels “harassed” a U.S. warship on Tuesday near the Strait of Hormuz, a U.S. defense official said, amid Washington’s concerns about Iran’s posture in the Gulf and in the Syrian civil war.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that two of the Iranian vessels came within 300 yards of the USS Nitze in an incident that was “unsafe and unprofessional.”

The vessels harassed the destroyer by “conducting a high speed intercept and closing within a short distance of Nitze, despite repeated warnings,” the official said.

IRGC, the Islamic Republic’s praetorian guard, is suspicious of U.S. military activity near Iran’s borders and appears to be sticking to a familiar posture in the Gulf that predates last year’s nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.

The United States and other countries are concerned about Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ballistic missile program, and its backing for Shiite militias that have abused civilians in Iraq.

The U.S. defense official said that in Tuesday’s incident the USS Nitze tried to communicate with the Iranian vessels 12 times, but received no response. It also fired 10 flares in the direction of two of the Iranian vessels.

“The Iranian high rate of closure… created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation, including additional defensive measures by Nitze,” the official said.

USS Nitze had to change course in order to distance itself from the Iranian vessels, the official said, adding that the incident could have led to a diplomatic protest, but the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.

It remains to be seen whether these actions were carried out by rogue Revolutionary Guard commanders or sanctioned by senior officials in Tehran, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“For four decades the Revolutionary Guard have been told that America is the greatest threat to the Islamic Revolution,” said Sadjadpour. “This institutional culture hasn’t changed after the nuclear deal,” he added.

In January, 10 U.S. sailors aboard two patrol craft were detained by the IRGC when they inadvertently entered Iranian territorial waters. They were released the next day after being held for about 15 hours.

The Gulf separates Iran from its regional rival Saudi Arabia and a U.S. naval base in Bahrain.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Grant McCool and Andrew Hay)





U.S., South Korea begin joint drills amid tension after defection

U.S. army soldiers take part in a military exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea

By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea kicked off annual military exercises on Monday, prompting warnings of retaliation from the North, as already-heightened tension on the peninsula has been inflamed by the defection of a Pyongyang diplomat.

North Korea has become further isolated after a January nuclear test, its fourth, and the launch of a long-range rocket in February brought tightened U.N. Security Council sanctions that Pyongyang defied with several ballistic missile launches.

About 25,000 U.S. troops are joining in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which runs until Sept 2. The U.S.-led U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission said it notified the North Korean army the exercises were “non-provocative” in nature.

The North calls the exercises preparations for invasion, and early on Monday threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike. North Korea frequently makes such threats.

“From this moment, the first-strike combined units of the Korean People’s Army keep themselves fully ready to mount a preemptive retaliatory strike at all enemy attack groups involved in Ulji Freedom Guardian,” a KPA spokesman said in a statement carried by the North’s state-run KCNA news agency.

“The nuclear warmongers should bear in mind that if they show the slightest sign of aggression, it would turn the stronghold of provocation into a heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike.”

Last week, South Korea announced that Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador in London, had defected and arrived in the South with his family, in an embarrassing blow to the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

High-level defections pointed to cracks in the Kim regime, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Monday.

“Recently even North Korea’s elite group is collapsing, followed by key figures defecting to foreign countries, showing a sign of serious cracks, with chances of shaking the regime further,” she told a National Security Council meeting.

Thae’s defection followed the flight to Seoul this year of 12 waitresses from a North Korean restaurant in China.

On Monday, North Korea’s Red Cross sent a letter to its South Korean counterpart asking for the women to be sent back, saying they had been kidnapped by the South, according to KCNA. South Korea denies they were kidnapped.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

(Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. Military likely to seek additional troops in Iraq

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S. April 29, 2016 about the investigation of the airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military expects to seek additional troops in Iraq, even beyond the hundreds announced this week, as the campaign against the Islamic State advances, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command told Reuters.

“As we continue on the mission, I think there will be some additional troops that we will ask to bring in,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel said in an interview in Baghdad on Thursday, without disclosing a number.

Votel, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, said the size of possible future increases were still being discussed within military circles. He did not offer details on the timing of any requests to President Barack Obama’s administration.

His remarks came just three days after Obama’s administration announced a 560 troop increase as part of an effort to facilitate an Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city.

Most of those troops will work out of Qayara air base, which Iraqi forces recaptured from Islamic State militants last week.

They plan to use Qayara as a staging ground for an offensive to retake Mosul.

Votel suggested future requests would similarly be tailored to particular stages of the campaign.

“We try to tie our requests to specific objectives we’re trying to achieve on the ground,” he said.

The recapture of Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto Iraqi capital, from which its leader declared a modern-day caliphate in 2014, would be a major boost for the plans by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the United States to weaken the militant group.

Abadi has pledged to retake Mosul by the end of the year.

Some U.S. officials caution that retaking the city without a plan to restore security, basic services and governance would be a major mistake and question the ability of Iraq’s Shi’ite-government in Baghdad to mend the sectarian divide fueling the conflict.

Votel broadly acknowledged concerns about the non-military aspects of the campaign but said he felt more upbeat after meetings on Wednesday with top Iraqi officials, including Abadi.

“While there is still a lot of work to do – a lot of work to do – I left more encouraged,” he said, stressing the importance that U.S.-backed military operations “pay off on the political side.”

With the latest troop increase, the United States has an official limit of just over 4,600 troops formally assigned to Iraq, although the actual figure is higher due to temporary assignments.

Obama has opposed recommitting the United States to another large-scale ground war in the Middle East and any deployment of forces to Iraq would likely need to be measured.

Republican leaders this week called on Obama to ask Congress for additional funds to pay for the deployment of more troops to Iraq, as Congress and the White House debate defense spending amid mandatory budget cuts.


As Islamic State militants have lost part of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, they increasingly have turned to suicide attacks.

These included a bombing in the Iraqi capital last week that left nearly 300 people dead, the most lethal bombing of its kind since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Votel was speaking before a gunman killed 80 people and wounded scores when he drove a heavy truck at high speed into a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks in the French Riviera city of Nice. No group has claimed responsibility.

Votel cautioned that even after Islamic State eventually loses Mosul and the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, Americans should not expect a rapid, wholesale withdrawal from the country. “What we don’t want to do is declare victory and depart after that. I think we want to see this through,” Votel said.

If Islamic State fighters shift to other locations, outside those cities, Votel said it was important to have U.S. military resources in place “to ensure we can achieve that lasting defeat.”

“If there’s capabilities we don’t need, we will remove them. Likewise if there’s capabilities we do need that we don’t have, we’ll ask for them,” Votel said, describing an evolving campaign that won’t end soon.

(Reporting by Phillip Stewart; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Science group warns of shortcomings in U.S. missile defense

Intercept flight test of a land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile in Kauai, Hawaii

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. missile defense system to counter attacks from rogue states like North Korea has no proven capability to protect the United States and is not on a credible path to achieve that goal, a science advocacy group said on Thursday.

The ground-based midcourse missile defense system, which has deployed 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, has been tested under highly scripted conditions only nine times since being deployed in 2004, and failed to destroy its target two-thirds of the time, the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a report.

“After nearly 15 years of effort to build the GMD homeland missile defense system, it still has no demonstrated real-world capability to defend the United States,” said Laura Grego, a UCS physicist who co-authored the report.

Deficiencies in the program, which has cost $40 billion so far and is being expanded to include 44 interceptors by 2017, are due largely to a Bush administration decision to exempt the system from normal oversight and accountability, to rush it into service by 2004, Grego said in an interview.

“Instead of getting something out to the field that worked well or worked adequately, in fact this has been a disaster. It’s done the opposite,” she said.

The Obama administration’s efforts to improve oversight while keeping the system outside the normal development and procurement process have contributed to the problems, she said.

“The lack of accountability has had and will have real lasting effects, especially for a system … that’s strategically important. It should be held to the highest standards, the highest rigor,” she added.

The Missile Defense Agency said in a statement the rapid deployment requirement in the law that created the system was “a driving factor” in the delivery of a ground-based interceptor with “reliability challenges.”

The agency said the problems had led to changes in the interceptor’s design and a program to improve reliability, including use of more mature technologies. The MDA said it was seeking ways to reduce the risks of deploying equipment still under development.

The UCS report echoed criticisms the homeland missile defense system has faced from other quarters. A Pentagon assessment in 2015 found that flight testing of the system was still “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

A February report by Congress’s Government Accountability Office said the MDA was taking a “high-risk” approach by buying interceptors still under development for operational use.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Gregorio)

U.S. says China fighter made ‘unsafe’ intercept of spy plane

A China's J-10 fighter jet from the People's Liberation Army Air Force August 1st Aerobatics Team performs during a media demonstration at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand,

By Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese fighter jet carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. spy plane on routine patrol on Tuesday in international airspace over the East China Sea, the U.S. Pacific Command said, as China again demanded an end to U.S. surveillance flights.

The intercept involved two Chinese J-10 fighter planes and a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane, U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement.

“One of the intercepting Chinese jets had an unsafe excessive rate of closure on the RC-135 aircraft. Initial assessment is that this seems to be a case of improper airmanship, as no other provocative or unsafe maneuvers occurred,” Pacific Command said. It did not say how close the Chinese fighter came to the U.S. plane.

“The Department of Defense is addressing the issue with China in appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” the statement said.

China’s Defense Ministry said it had noted the report and was looking into it.

“Judging by the report, the U.S. side is again deliberately hyping up the issue of the close surveillance of China by U.S. military aircraft,” it told Reuters in a statement.

“Chinese military pilots consistently carry out operations in accordance with the law and the rules, and are professional and responsible,” it added, without elaborating.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said such patrols seriously harmed China’s security, and repeated a demand they stop.

“China has the right to take defensive measures,” he told a daily news briefing, without identifying the site of the intercept.

Asked if the incident had been timed to coincide with high-level China-U.S. talks in Beijing, attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Hong responded, “Ask the Americans.”

In May, the Pentagon said two Chinese fighter jets flew within 50 feet (15 meters) of a U.S. EP-3 aircraft over the South China Sea.

The Pentagon determined that the May incident violated an agreement the two governments signed last year.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would consider any Chinese establishment of an air defense zone over the South China Sea to be a “provocative and destabilizing act.”

U.S. officials have expressed concern that an international court ruling expected in coming weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China over its South China Sea claims could prompt Beijing to declare an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, as it did over the East China Sea in 2013.

China has claimed most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing the South China Sea after creating artificial islands. Beijing, in turn, has criticized increased U.S. naval patrols and exercises in Asia.

At a conference in Singapore last week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific remained “one of commitment, strength and inclusion,” but he warned China against provocative behavior in the South China Sea.

(Editing by David Gregorio and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. military dropping “cyber bombs” on Islamic State

Robert Work, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, speaks at a christening ceremony for the autonomous ship "Sea Hunter", developed by DARPA, in Portland, Oregon

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (Reuters) – The U.S. military is dropping “cyber bombs” on Islamic State for the first time as part of a stepped-up coordinated effort that has put increasing pressure on the militant group, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said on Tuesday.

“Those guys are under enormous pressure. Every time we have gone after one of their defended positions over the last six months, we have defeated them. They have left, they have retreated,” Work told reporters on a military plane en route to a Colorado air base.

He said U.S. and coalition forces were putting pressure on Islamic State from all directions, using every possible military capability, including cyber attacks, to defeat the group.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S.-Led and NATO Special Forces Join Fight in Kunduz

NATO special forces have joined Afghan forces in their attempt to retake the city of Kunduz which fell into Taliban control on Monday.

The heavily assailed airport, which sits on a hilltop a few miles outside Kunduz, is now the only place held by the Afghan army. The nearby Bala Hisar fort fell when soldiers there ran out of ammunition, deputy provincial governor Hamdullah Daneshi said.  Thousands of troops have fled to the airport during the intense fighting over the last two days.

U.S. special forces had been advising Afghan troops while operating from a temporary base at the Kunduz airport for several weeks, according to a special forces commander.

Coalition spokesman Col. Brian Tribus gave few details about the foreign troops’ engagement with insurgents while supporting Afghan forces overnight, including the troops’ nationalities. Although the U.S. and NATO have officially handed over the battle against the Taliban to Afghan forces, the terms of their mission allows them to fight when they come under direct threat.

That happened early Wednesday morning when a team of U.S. special forces “encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of the Kunduz airport at approximately 1 am, 30 September,” Tribus told Reuters, adding that the soldier had acted in self-defense. “When they encountered the threat, they defended themselves,” he said.

President Visits Troops on Christmas Day

President Obama and the first lady visited troops at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Christmas, thanking them for their service to the nation.

The President acknowledged the birth of Christ in his message to the troops.

“So on a day when we celebrate the Prince of Peace and many of us count our blessings, one of the greatest blessings we have is the extraordinary dedication and sacrifices you all make,” Obama said according to ABC News.  “We could not be more thankful. I know I speak for everyone in the entire country when I say, we salute you.”

The President spent the majority of the time talking about the end of the U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of the year.

“Next week we will be ending our combat mission in Afghanistan. Because of the extraordinary service of the men and women in the Armed Forces, Afghanistan has a chance to rebuild its own country. We are safer. It’s not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again. And we still have some very difficult missions around the world, including in Iraq,” Obama continued.

“We still have folks in Afghanistan helping the Afghan security forces. We have people helping to deal with Ebola in Africa and obviously we have folks stationed all around the world. But the world is better, it’s safer, it’s more peaceful, it’s more prosperous and our homeland is protected because of you and the sacrifices each and every day.”

Over 2,000 U.S. troops died during the Afghan war.

Vice President Biden and his wife visited troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

American Troops Battle ISIS For First Time

ISIS militants lost a significant number of troops after they attacked an Iraqi base that was housing U.S. ground troops.

The assault by the terrorists on the Ein al-Asad military base on Sunday were 100 U.S. troops were stationed as part of a “training mission” for the Iraqi military.  Not only did the terrorists find themselves quickly being subdued by the U.S. troops but F-18 fighters also joined the fight.

A tribal leader in the region said that while it was the first direct fight between US troops and ISIS, it didn’t mean that the U.S. was engaged in the ground war.  Sheikh Mahmud Nimrawi said that terrorists attacked the base so it was an act of self-defense.

The U.S. forces are helping train Iraqis and members of the Kurdish peshmurga as they attempt to recapture a key city from the terrorists.  The city is on a major pathway to Yazidis trapped in mountains by ISIS.

Military Chaplain Condemned For Saying Faith Helped Him

A military Chaplain has been issued a “letter of concern” for telling people attending a class on suicide prevention that his Christian faith has been a help to him.

Colonel David G. Fivecoat, the commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, issued the punishment against the Christian pastor for his mentioning how faith helped him in hard times.

The Liberty Institute has stepped in to defend Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn and allow him to exercise his Constitutional right to share his faith.

“The Constitution, federal law, and military regulations all make clear that religious expression in the military is not only permitted, but it’s protected,” Mike Berry of the Liberty Institute told The Christian Post.  “Congress recently strengthened religious freedom for service members in the FY13 and FY14 National Defense Authorization Acts (Sections 533 and 532, respectively).”

The letter, which stays for three years in Lawhorn’s personnel file unless Fivecoat leaves command, is a black mark against the pastor who simply did his job.

“You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse soldiers,” the letter of concern reads. “During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you are careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another.”