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The latest news on Defense from Business Insider

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    US Marines howitzers Syria

    • US troops in Syria are digging in and preparing for future attacks after a massive battle played out in the country's east
    • The US Brig. Gen. in charge of the US-led fight against ISIS confirmed that around 300 Russian mercenaries were killed in a massive battle with US forces on February 7, though the Kremlin denies it.
    • Russian websites have been seen as advertising jobs for more mercenaries, and a recruiter reportedly said Russians were now joining up to take revenge on the US after losing the fight in February. 

    US troops in Syria are digging in and preparing for future attacks after a massive battle played out in the country's east that ended with up to 300 Russian mercenaries killed by US artillery and airpower.

    Reporting from the ground in Syria, NBC News' Richard Engel and Kennet Werner spoke to Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, whose forces beat back the pro-Syrian government advance on a well known US position near valuable oilfields.

    The Pentagon said the pro-Syrian forces, including many Russians hired by private military contractors, made an "unprovoked attack" on their positions with artillery fire. The US response included airstrikes and artillery shelling that sources say wiped out much of the advancing column in just minutes.

    "Those artillery rounds could have landed and killed Americans, and that's why we continue to prepare our defenses,"  Braga, who directs the US-led operations against ISIS, told NBC News.

    Braga also confirmed that it was largely Russian nationals that took part in the fighting, though the Kremlin denies this.

    But despite the overwhelming victory that saw zero casualties on the US side, Braga said he's "absolutely concerned" about further clashes in the future.

    After the massive battle, Russian job listing sites were seen as advertising security work in Syria, in what is likely a recruitment play for more mercenaries. A man claiming to recruit Russians to work as private military contractors said that the recruits he now met were joining up to take revenge on the US, after the battle shook their national pride. 

    Possible round two

    AH-64D Apache attack helicopter

    Now, according to NBC News, the forces that once attacked the US sit just three miles away, and Braga is uneasy.

    "There is no reason for that amount of combat power to be staring at us this closely," Braga said. "I don't think that's healthy for de-escalation."

    As a result Braga's forces are digging in and preparing for what could be a future clash.

    Russia stands accused of using military contractors, or Russian nationals without proper Russian military uniforms, to conceal the true cost of fighting in places like Ukraine and Syria. 

    But when the Russian mercenaries were crushed by US airpower, they reportedly had no anti-aircraft weaponry.

    It's unclear how the Russian mercenaries and pro-Syrian government forces expect to stand a chance against the US without the involvement of the proper Russian military, or at least weapons that can take down the US Apache helicopters that are said to have strafed and mopped up the mercenaries towards the end of the battle.

    SEE ALSO: Why Putin's new 'doomsday' device is so much more deadly and horrific than a regular nuke

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: These bionic arms make kids feel like superheroes

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    Russia Vladimir Putin submarine navy arctic

    • Russian media reported on Friday that its military snuck nuclear attack submarines near US military bases and left undetected.
    • Russia has been increasingly touting its nuclear capabilities. 
    • Even though the alleged submarine patrols near the US are militarily meaningless, Russian media reports they will air a TV series on the event.

    Russian media reported on Friday that its military snuck nuclear attack submarines near US military bases and left undetected just weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin hyped up his country's nuclear capabilities

    "This mission has been accomplished, the submarines showed up in the set location in the ocean and returned to base," Sergey Starshinov, a Russian navy submarine officer, told Russian state-owned media. Starshinov said the vessels came and went "undetected" and that without violating the US's maritime borders, they got "close enough" to US military bases.

    The Russian media, known for trafficking in propaganda to glorify Putin and the state's military, will reportedly release a TV series on the exercises.

    The Pentagon did not respond to request for comment on this story.

    The incident remains unverifiable with deniability baked in. If Russian submarines truly came and went undetected, no credible third party could likely verify the exercises. The fact that the military drill will become a TV series suggests that it was carried out at least in part for propaganda purposes, rather than practical military needs. 

    The submarines, which carry long-range cruise missiles that can fire from underwater, have no business coming close to the US, as they have an effective range of more than 1,500 miles. The submarines named by Russian media are powered by nuclear reactors, but have no nuclear weapons.

    The incident comes as Putin prepares for an election on March 18, though he is expected to win handily. Putin has limited which opposition figures can run and controlled the state's access to information throughout. 

    Russia frequently engages in propaganda to glorify its military, as it did when it recently deployed early-stage supposedly stealth fighter jets to Syria. After a few days of dropping bombs on undefended villages in Syria, Russia declared the planes, which are designed for high-end warfighting against US stealth jets, "combat proven."

    In February, Russian military contractors suffered a humiliating defeat to the US military in Syria, with airstrikes and artillery wiping out up to 300 Russian nationals while US forces suffered no combat losses, a US General has confirmed.

    Does it matter if Russia can sneak its submarines around like this?

    Nuclear strike targets in the US

    Both the US and Russia have heavily entrenched mutually assured destruction nuclear postures, meaning that any nuclear strike on the US by Russia would be immediately returned by US missiles fired from silos, submarines, and airplanes pummeling Russia.

    Russia is currently facing increasing scrutiny and sanctions over its meddling in the US's 2016 presidential election and its alleged role in the poisoning of former spies in Britain. Russia's economy is heavily dependent on energy exports, and the weak price of oil and competitiveness from the US and other players have crippled its economy, though it continues to spend heavily on the military. 

    Despite having four times the population, Russia's GDP is roughly equivalent to Canada's and military sales and power remain one of its few lifelines to nationa prestige.

    Though the US and Russia are Cold War foes increasingly at odds over foreign policy, the only recent significant clash between the two countries came in February, during the battle in Syria which Russia overwhelmingly lost.

    SEE ALSO: Why Putin's new 'doomsday' device is so much more deadly and horrific than a regular nuke

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Kim Jong Un

    • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has unilaterally decided to discuss denuclearization with the US, but seriously pursuing that line could end in his ouster and death.
    • Dictators like Kim run the risk of violent upheavals, as the North Korean people do not have legal recourse or any nonviolent method to change their leadership.
    • Whether or not Kim disarms, when North Korea becomes open for business, newly empowered North Koreans may rise up against the leader that has imprisoned and killed so many for political reasons.

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made headlines for his diplomatic offensive, expressing unprecedented openness to talking to the US and exploring denuclearization.

    But if Kim is serious about getting rid of his country's nuclear weapons, and many doubt that he is, he opens himself up to the same fate that's befallen many US foes and deposed dictators — a fall from power, and potentially his own death.

    Perhaps no more vivid example of the fate that awaits dictators exists than the video of Muammar Gaddafi's death in Libya in 2011. Gaddafi voluntarily gave up Libya's chemical weapons caches in 2003 in exchange for easing of sanctions and international pressure on his regime.

    In 2011, when Libya erupted in civil war, the US along with NATO allies peppered targets and forces loyal to Gaddafi, and within six months, the one-time ruler was beaten in the streets, killed, and had his body defiled with a soldier's bayonet.

    It could be Kim's turn to find out how dictators fare when their people are empowered

    North Korea

    Now Kim ponders a similar disarmament, albeit maybe in a cynical way to draw the US into talks. But to credibly advance the pending talks into negotiations, North Korea will have to outline some sort of roadmap towards denuclearization.

    The US will likely not accept anything less then complete, verifiable, irreparable denuclearization, which would mean North Korea allowing outside inspectors to visit its nuclear sites.

    One of North Korea's main deterrents against US invasion is that nobody knows exactly where its nuclear facilities are, what goes on there, and how many they have. The Trump administration has looked increasingly hard at these facilities as Pyongyang's nuclear-capable missiles achieve the ability to strike the US.

    To certifiably denuclearize, North Korea would have to provide that information to the US. If North Korea withdrew from the talks after providing that critical intelligence, they would have essentially given the US a map of where to strike.

    But even if the talks go forward without a hitch and North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way, the country will never be the same.

    "If North Korea does decide to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for a security guarantee from the US and then they open up the country, think about how much political influence South Korea will try to wage, think of Western society rushing in and the influence of outside information," Yun Sun, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, told Business Insider.

    "All the suffering they had under the Kim family rule, they didn't have to," Sun said of the North Korean people. 

    Kim losing nukes means Kim losing control

    kim jong un

    Trade, goods, money, information and all the trappings of Western society would seep in after the sanctions go away, according to Sun. International scrutiny, tourism, and inspections will draw the world's eye to the atrocities being committed by the Kim regime.

    Millions of North Koreans — the same ones enslaved, imprisoned, and victims of violence — will find financial liberation, and possibly corral that into political power.

    It's unlikely that North Korea will seriously progress towards giving up its nuclear arms, as the threats to Kim from within and without the country would likely consume him. Experts routinely assess that a flood of outside information and contact with the outside world will lead North Koreans to bring about the collapse of the Kim regime.

    "That the Libyan people rose up against Gaddafi had its roots in his brutality, corruption and incompetence: Not the fact that he had come to agreement years earlier with Washington, or that the United States had somehow double-crossed him," Fred Hof, former US ambassador to Syria and Atlantic Council expert, told Business Insider.

    "The same could hold true for a denuclearized North Korea," Hof said.

    But Sun, who also pointed to a connection between Gaddafi and Kim, pointed out that Gaddafi gave up his arms in 2003, and ruled eight years until his death in 2011. While Kim could hold out for some time, the economically much stronger South Korea, which shares language and culture with its neighbor, would eventually absorb the North, and leave Kim powerless and exposed, according to Sun.

    Because Kim isn't democratically elected and doesn't hold power temporarily or have to account for his treatment of his own people, he will "always be vulnerable to violent overthrow," according to Hof.

    "In the end the Gaddafis and Kims of the world are fully responsible for their own fates, whether they give up weapons of mass destruction or not," he said.

    SEE ALSO: North Korea talks look like a big victory for Trump — but Kim Jong Un may have already won

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    • Vladimir Putin now has a stronger hold on Russia — and stronger place in the world — thanks to an overwhelming mandate for yet another term as president.
    • Relations between Russia and the West are already at their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago.
    • Russia is unlikely to pull out of Syria, where it constantly butts heads with the West, anytime soon. He will likely keep up his aggressive foreign policies.
    • But Putin faces a tough question of how to step down from power, as he is getting old and has no apparent successor.

    MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin now has a stronger hold on Russia — and stronger place in the world — thanks to an overwhelming mandate for yet another term as president.

    His domestic opponents are largely resigned to another six years in the shadows. His foreign opponents are mired in their own problems, from Britain's messy exit from the European Union to chaos and contradiction in the Trump administration.

    Even widespread voting violations are unlikely to dent Putin's armor. And accusations that he meddled in the U.S. election and sponsored a nerve agent attack in Britain have only bolstered his standing at home.

    Here's a look at what to expect from Putin's next six years in power, for Russia's rivals, neighbors and its own 147 million citizens.

    New Cold War? 

    trump and putin

    Relations between Russia and the West are already at their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago.

    Despite a friendly-ish relationship with President Donald Trump, Putin's new mandate gives him little incentive to seek entente with Washington, especially as the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election intensifies.

    Putin-friendly leaders have made gains in recent Italian and German elections. Western countries are likely to see more Russia-linked hacking and propaganda aimed at disrupting elections or otherwise discrediting democracy — including the U.S. midterm elections in November.

    Since Putin's domestic popularity bumps whenever he stands up to the West, expect more tough talk from Putin the next time he faces threats at home, and bolder Russian vetoes at the U.N. Security Council of anything seen as threatening Moscow's interests.

    His claim several weeks ago that Russia has developed new nuclear weapons that can evade missile defenses clearly showed Putin's adamant determination to boost Russia's power to intimidate.

    Syria and the extremist threat

    su 24 frogfoot syria

    Russian-backed Syrian forces helped rout the Islamic State group from Syria, and Putin argues that Russia saved the day in a conflict that had confounded U.S.-led forces fighting against IS.

    Now those Russian-backed Syrian forces are closing in on the last strongholds of Western-backed rebel forces.

    Viewing that as a geopolitical and military victory over an illegal Western-led intervention, Russia is unlikely to pull out of Syria anytime soon.

    An emboldened Putin could position the resurgent Russian military as a peacemaker in other regional conflicts — for example in Libya, where Russia has oil interests and where a disastrous Western invasion seven years ago left a lawless state now seething with extremists.

    Russia's neighbors

    Crimea war 2014

    To Russians, Putin's biggest victory in 18 years in power was annexing Crimea and crushing Ukraine's ambitions to move closer to the EU and NATO.

    Putin is frustrated at the resulting U.S. and EU sanctions but appears unwilling to make concessions that would bring them to an end. Ukraine is split between a volatile government in Kiev and a Russia-backed separatist region stuck in a frozen but still deadly conflict that serves Putin's interests.

    Moscow's actions in Ukraine sent a warning signal to other countries in Russia's orbit that reaching westward is dangerous. And former Soviet bloc states within the EU are increasingly drifting back toward Moscow, from Hungary and Poland to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

    Fellow Russians 

    Putin supporters

    Putin's new mandate could theoretically hand him the power to make bold reforms that Russia has long needed to raise living standards and wean itself from its oil dependence.

    But Putin has convinced Russian voters that drastic change is dangerous, and that protecting the country from threats takes precedence over improving daily life.

    Experts predict he may enact some changes like expanding affordable housing and fighting corruption on a local level.

    But less likely are bigger changes such as overhauling the pension system, which is unpopular among a strong Putin voting base, or spending cuts in the security sector, unpopular among the ex-KGB friends in Putin's entourage.

    Russia has weathered a two-year recession, and inflation and the deficit are low. But personal incomes have stagnated, the health care system is crumbling and corruption is rife.

    His own future 

    putin presidential campaign

    The biggest question for Russians over the next six years is what happens after that.

    Putin is constitutionally required to step down in 2024, but he could change the rules to eliminate term limits, or anoint a malleable successor and continue to run things behind the scenes.

    Asked at an impromptu news conference Sunday night if he would seek the presidency again in 2030, when he would be eligible again, the 65-year-old Putin snapped back: "It's ridiculous. Do you think I will sit here until I turn 100?"

    Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin's most serious foe, will face further pressure from authorities as he works to expose corruption and official lies.

    Other Putin rivals such as candidate Ksenia Sobchak and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky will try to gain a foothold through upcoming local elections and the parliament.

    And members of Putin's inner circle will be jockeying for position for the day when he is no longer in the picture.

    Putin may revive efforts to promote artificial intelligence and other innovation as part of a focus on the younger generation, whose loyalty he needs to ensure his legacy outlives him.

    SEE ALSO: Russia says it snuck nuclear attack submarines near US bases undetected

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    USS Theodore Roosevelt

    • Two thousand or so US forces remain in control of Syria's rich eastern oil fields.
    • Iran, Syria's government, and Russia openly oppose the US presence, but there's not much they can do about it.
    • An expert explains why it would be a losing battle to take on the US.

    Since the US-led effort against the Islamic State has reclaimed almost all of the terrorist group's territory in Syria, 2,000 or so US forces remain in control of the country's rich oil fields.

    And though Russia, Syria's government forces, and Iran's militias all oppose that remaining US presence, there's little they can do about it.

    A small US presence in an eastern town called Deir Ezzor has maintained an iron grip on the oil fields and even repelled an advance of hundreds of pro-Syrian government forces— including some Russian nationals believed to be mercenaries — in a massive battle that became a lopsided win for the US.

    Russia has advanced weapons systems in Syria, pro-Syrian government militias have capable Russian equipment, and Iran has about 70,000 troops in the country. On paper, these forces could defeat or oust the US and the Syrian rebels it backs, but in reality it would likely be a losing battle, according to an expert.

    US forces at risk, but not as much as anyone who would attack them

    US Marine artillery syria

    "They have the ability to hurt US soldiers — it's possible," Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. But "if they do that," he said, "they'll absolutely be destroyed."

    In Badran's view, even if Russia wanted a direct fight against the US military in Syria, something he and other experts seriously doubt, the forces aligned with Syria's government don't stand much of a chance.

    "I think the cruise-missile attack in April showed, and the ongoing Israeli incursions show, the Russian position and their systems are quite vulnerable," said Badran, referring to the US's April 2017 strike on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical-weapons attack in the country. Though Russia has stationed high-end air defenses in Syria to protect its assets, that did not stop the US when President Donald Trump's administration decided to punish the Syrian air force with 59 cruise missiles.

    Russia has just a few dozen jets in Syria, mostly suited for ground-attack roles with some air-supremacy fighters. The US has several large bases in the area from which it can launch a variety of strike and fighter aircraft, including the world's greatest fighter jet, the F-22.

    Iran has a large inventory of rockets in and around Syria, according to Badran, but an Iranian rocket attack on US forces would be met by a much larger US retaliation.

    "It's vulnerable," Badran said of Iran's military presence in Syria. "It's exposed to direct US fire, just like it's exposed to direct Israeli fire."

    If Iran fired a single missile at US forces, "then the bases and depot and crew will be destroyed after that," said Badran, who added that Iranian forces in Syria had poor supply lines that would make them ill-suited to fight the US, which has airpower and regional assets to move in virtually limitless supplies.

    Badran noted that before the US entered the Syrian conflict, Islamic State fighters, whose training and equipment pales in comparison to the US forces', had success disrupting Iranian-aligned militias' supply lines "even though they're under bombardment."

    At the same time, Syria's military has struggled for years to take territory from Syrian rebels, some of whom do not receive funding or backing from the US. With Syria's government focused on overcoming the civil war in the country's more populous west, it's unlikely they could offer any meaningful challenge to US forces in the country's east.

    The US defending itself is a given, and Russia, Iran, or Syria would be too bold to question that

    An F-15E Strike Eagle sits on the flightline at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Nov. 12, 2015.

    "Everybody poses this question as though the US is Luxembourg," Badran said, comparing the US, which has the most powerful military in the world, to Luxembourg, which has a few hundred troops and only some diplomatic or economic leverage to play with while conducting foreign policy.

    For now, the US has announced its intentions to stay in Syria and sit on the oil fields as a way of denying the government the funds to reconstruct the country. Syria's government has been linked to massive human-rights violations throughout the seven-year civil war, which started with popular uprisings against the country's ruler, Bashar Assad.

    While the US has failed to oust Assad or even meaningfully decrease the suffering of Syrian people, it remains a force incredibly capable of defending itself.

    SEE ALSO: US troops in Syria prepare for more Russian attacks after crushing up to 300 mercenaries in February battle

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    israeli air force formation blue flag israel

    • Israel's military admitted on Tuesday that its airstrikes had taken out a would-be nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.
    • If Syria had kept its nuclear program in place, it's very possible it could have lost its nuclear weapons to ISIS or other rebel groups when the country erupted into civil war.
    • A nuclear-capable ISIS would have had more leverage, and could possibly force concessions from its opponents or prompt other nuclear states to strike first.

    Israel's military admitted on Tuesday what intelligence communities around the world had long known — that Israeli airstrikes had taken out a would-be nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.

    In reporting the strike, Israel said it had done so in part to warn its adversaries in the region, like Iran. But surely Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and other countries with spy services already knew the action Israel had taken. 

    It's unlikely Iran or Syria needed a current reminder that Israel would fight in the skies over Syria to protect its interests after a massive Israeli air offensive downed an Iranian drone and reportedly took out half of Syria's air defenses in February.

    But one element of Israel's 2007 strike on a nuclear reactor near Deir Ezzor that bears repeating and reexamination is the fact that the terror group ISIS held control of that area for three full years.

    If Syria had nukes, then ISIS might have too

    Israeli airstrike on Syrian nuclear reactor

    "Look at nukes as an insurance policy — at the end of the day, if you've got a nuke, it's an umbrella for all of the other activity that could potentially spark conflict with your enemies," Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria expert and the senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. "If your enemies want to respond to you, they're going to feel inhibited."

    This may have been Syria's calculus in 2007 when it set about a clandestine nuclear weapons program, reportedly with the help of embedded North Koreans. 

    But in 2011, a popular, pro-democratic uprising in Syria sparked what would become a civil war that has dragged on to this day. During the conflict, Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost control of the majority of his country, with some parts under the control of rebel forces, some parts under the control of Kurdish forces, and from 2014 to 2017, much of the country under ISIS' control.

    ISIS held Deir Ezzor and the surrounding regions for three solid years, during which time they looted and pillaged whatever resources were available and ready for sale, including oil from the country's rich oilfields. 

    If Israel had not taken out the reactor in 2007, it's entirely possible ISIS could have taken custody of it. With access to radioactive materials, it's possible ISIS could have cooked up a dirty bomb for use in terrorism, or even detonated a full on nuclear device.

    It's reasonable to expect that a nuclear-capable ISIS would have more leverage, and could possibly force concessions from its opponents or prompt other nuclear states to strike first.

    Instability makes Middle Eastern nuclear programs extra dangerous

    Iran Protest Headscarf

    "The Middle East is unstable," Schanzer said. "One never knows when the next popular uprising or the next moment of intense instability might hit."

    Even states like Iran, where the current government has been in power since 1979, could fall prey to a popular uprising that could collapse the regime "overnight," according to Schanzer.

    "Imagine if in Syria today we were trying to track loose nukes," Schanzer said. "Imagine if a country like Yemen had nuclear weapons."

    While nuclear weapons may deter state actors from invading a country or pushing it too far, they do not protect against domestic upheaval, like the 2011 Syrian uprising that became overrun with Islamist hardliners like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

    SEE ALSO: Syria's civil war began 7 years ago — look back at how it spawned ISIS, a refugee crisis, and a massive US strike

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    uss theodore roosevelt aircraft carrier f a 18

    • A US Navy Rear Adm. recently outlined how the US's air campaign over Syria has become incredibly complicated — and therefore very dangerous.
    • US pilots are flying very closely to a number of other air forces that have different agendas.
    • More than just fighting wars, the US has to interpret the other actors' intentions.
    • Because of the close quarters and confusing politics, US pilots run the risk of making a massive mistake that could start a war with Russia, Iran, Turkey, or others in the region. 

    A recent report from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf and supporting the US-led fight against ISIS contained a startling realization — US pilots are fighting in an insanely complicated space that puts them in danger.

    "When it first started, ISIS was just steamrolling across Iraq and Syria and there wasn't really much resistance going on … There weren't a whole lot of places you could go where there was no ISIS presence about three years ago," Lt. Joe Anderson, an F/A-18F pilot aboard the Roosevelt, told the US Naval Institute.

    But in 2018, the US-led coalition against ISIS has all but crushed the terror army. Now the US troops in Syria, and their backups aboard the Roosevelt, have moved on to other objectives.

    "Now where we're at, there's not as much going on … Mostly they’ve been whittled down to just isolated pockets within Iraq and Syria," Anderson said. 

    As the fight against ISIS dwindles down, the US has turned its attention to denying Iran influence within Syria and a land bridge to arm Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, as well as denying Syrian President Bashar Assad access to the country's rich eastern oilfields. 

    US Navy pilots now spend much of their time "doing on-call [close-air support] and doing more defending the US and coalition forces on the ground in the area, and specifically Syrian Defense Forces who are in the mix doing their thing," Anderson said.

    That means the US is defending a group of Syrian rebels with embedded US ground troops in one of the most complex fights in history. The US supports the SDF and Kurdish forces in Syria's north, but Turkey, a NATO ally, launched a military campaign against the Kurds. The US's SDF allies opposes Syria's government, but Russia and Iran back them. 

    US pilots fly the same skies as Iranian, Turkish, Syrian, and Russian aircraft, and they're only allies with the Turks. 

    Crazy complicated skies put the US at risk

    operationinherentresolve fa-18 aircraft carrier

    Anderson's commander, Rear Adm. Steve Koehler, told USNI that "the threat picture in Syria is just crazy."

    "How many different countries can you cram in one different place, where they all have a different little bit of an agenda? And you put a tactical pilot up there and he or she has to employ ordnance or make defensive counter-air decisions with multiple people – Russians, Syrians, Turks, ISIS, United States," Koehler said. 

    As a result of the multi-faceted geopolitical complexity, US pilots are now in much more danger than a regular combat mission, according to retired US Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke.

    "Now the pilots in the airplanes are under stress and using ordnance now have to do interpretations of human behavior and derive the intention of a potential adversary, or at least someone who's not there for the same reasons," Berke told Business Insider. 

    In normal situations, like over Iraq or Afghanistan, US pilots fly with coalition partners and against enemy aircraft, but the divergent agendas in Syria mean aircraft with potentially bad aircraft can square right up to the US without tripping any alarms.

    Berke emphasized that the difference in each country's agenda made the coordination and combat fraught with difficulty.

    If an armed Turkish jet was speeding towards Kurdish forces with US troops embedded, how should a US pilot respond? US pilots and air controllers train endlessly on how to fight, but drawing the line between what constitutes aggression, or self defense, is a different matter.

    This could start a war

    su 30 escorting tu 160

    "If you misinterpret what someone does, you can create a massive problem, you can start a war," Berke said. "I can't think of a more complex place for there to be or a greater level of risk."

    As a result, US pilots are somewhat bound to deescalation, and may be tolerating higher levels of aggression from adversaries or non-allies in the skies above Syria. No US pilot wants to make headlines for kicking off an international incident by downing a Russian jet, or failing to defend US forces in a very murky situation. 

    "The less you know what's going on, the more likely you're going to make a bad decision that you're not aware," Berke said. "The fact that it hasn't escalated beyond what it is now is a testament to the professionalism of the US military, it could have gone sideways any number of times."

    SEE ALSO: The F-22 came face to face with Russia's top fighter and was at a major disadvantage

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War

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    Donald Trump H.R. McMaster Rex Tillerson

    • Experts say President Donald Trump's recent Cabinet moves reveal that he's more confident, sick of conventional wisdom, and will now go with his gut.
    • Trump's instincts seem to call for outright war or trade war with multiple countries.
    • With Trump's Cabinet now stocked with hawks, the US doesn't lack for credibility when it comes to threats of military action.

    President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he would replace his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, a noted hawk, with the even more hawkish former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.

    Just one week earlier, he replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

    "With Pompeo and Bolton, Trump will have two new members of his team who share his hawkish take on foreign policy," the Atlantic Council wrote in response to the recent moves.

    Across the board, experts seem to agree that Trump now feels empowered to free himself from the conventional wisdom that tempered his instincts throughout his first year in office — and is ready to shoot from the hip.

    Trump is "sick and tired of people who work for him resisting his policy agenda," Andy Surabian, a former special assistant to Trump and deputy White House strategist, previously told Business Insider.

    Trump's staff moves show he is "increasingly confident in his own judgment, irritated at being corralled for traditional (=sensible) policies by nat sec team," Institute of International Strategic Studies Deputy Director Kori Schake tweeted. Trump, she continued, now intends "to carry out his campaign promises."

    "Buckle up," she said, "it's going to be a bumpy ride."

    Kelly Magsamen, the vice president of the National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, tweeted that combining Pompeo and Bolton would be like "putting gasoline on the Trump dumpster fire." She added: "Make no mistake: this is the makings of a war cabinet."

    Trade war, outright war now a real possibility with China

    trump china visit opera

    While confrontations stemming from nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran have loomed for some time, Trump's personal instinct drives him toward picking a fight with the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy: China.

    Trump's recent moves on tariffs, which helped cause his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to leave the White House, has strengthened fears of a trade war.

    But another Trump instinct, reaching out to Taiwan, the most sensitive issue for Beijing, just got another major boost. Trump recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act, legislation to permit high-level talks between US and Taiwanese officials, something China called a "red line."

    "We must strike back against Washington's implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act," an editorial in the Chinese state-run media said of the bill.

    And, unlike advisers past, don't expect Bolton to hold Trump back from going after China.

    "Bolton has long supported regime change in North Korea and closer ties with Taiwan. Fasten your seat belts," Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the South China Morning Post.

    Pressuring China had been a central pillar of Trump's campaign and platform for years. Before even taking office, Trump accepted a phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ying Wen, breaking with decades of tradition and outraging China.

    Experts seem to think Trump's instinct to rile China will remain — and could bring about conflicts that were previously unimaginable.

    "We should also expect an even more confrontational approach to China — a trade war may just be the beginning of a broader geopolitical competition," Abraham Denmark, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under President Barack Obama, told SCMP.

    Iran, North Korea hawks to the forefront

    Iran nuclear

    Among Trump's campaign promises was reworking the Iran nuclear deal, something his new adviser Bolton not only supports but actually exceeds in hawkishness by advocating military strikes on the country.

    "President Trump made this move to bring on a more like-minded adviser. This means the constraints keeping US foreign policy toward the mainstream are now greatly loosened. Buckle up: US foreign and national security policy are about to get far more assertive,"wrote Barry Pavel, the senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

    Similarly, Trump is set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May, but Bolton has already said such talks will be "fruitless" and has written an article making a legal case for bombing North Korea.

    Peace through strength?

    trump trump trump trump

    One of McMaster's core beliefs, as expressed through his writing and speeches, was that the US had lost credibility in the world stage because hostile actors like Iran and North Korea no longer believed the US would initiate military action unless it was struck first.

    Iran has funded terrorist groups and anti-US and anti-Israeli militias across the Middle East. It has harassed the US Navy and sought to undermine US foreign policy at every pass. North Korea is accused of exporting goods to bolster Syria's chemical and nascent nuclear weapons programs while imprisoning US citizens and killing South Koreans. China has contravened international law by building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea — all without a strong US response.

    It's worthwhile to note that McMaster himself wasn't short on hawkishness, as he was often reported to be pushing for some kind of limited military strike on North Korea.

    "With a national security team of Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, and Mattis, America will not have a credibility problem when it comes to threats to use military force," said Matthew Kroenig, the deputy director in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. (James Mattis, the US defense secretary, is a retired Marine Corps general.)

    With the US's uppermost professionals of foreign and military policy all seemingly in line with Trump's hawkish thinking, it looks as if his instincts will now take center stage.

    SEE ALSO: Forget trade — the Trump administration just crossed a far more dangerous 'red line' with China

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    houthi missile r-27t

    • Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that one of its fighter aircraft was "intercepted" by a "hostile air defense missile."
    • New video shows the true extent of the fighting.
    • Saudi Arabia said the missile used was not originally of Yemeni origin, and proves that Iran has been arming the country, and that their jet survived.
    • An expert told Business Insider that it's unlikely a fighter jet could survive such a massive fireball.

    Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that one of its fighter aircraft was "intercepted" by a "hostile air defense missile," and now video has emerged showing the true extent of the fighting.

    Saudi Arabia said the missile used was not originally of Yemeni origin, and proves that Iran has been arming the country.

    Experts who analyzed the film, released by Houthi rebels, said it showed a R-27T, or a Soviet-era missile usually found "hanging under the wing of a Russian-built aircraft," Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider.

    The missile, with a heat-seeking sensor and a solid range of about 70 kilometers when fired from the air, is seen in the video bursting upwards and eventually erupting in a fireball.

    The Saudis maintain the missile did not down the jet, which they claim returned back to base. The Houthis claim they downed the jet.

    Saudi fighter jets likely have decoys and defensive measures on board, but according to Bronk, "I would be reasonably surprised if a fast jet could emit that amount of fire on impact and get home."

    No matter the outcome, the fact that Houthi rebels in Yemen have demonstrated their ability to rig a Russian fighter jet missile to fire at Saudi jets from the ground shows they've advanced and increased their warfighting abilities.

    Watch the video below:

    SEE ALSO: Trump is now more confident, unleashed to do what he wants — and it looks like war on all fronts

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    us navy uss boxer gunner

    • Iran's navy made a point of harassing and humiliating the US Navy in 2016 after then-President Barack Obama had sealed the Iran deal, but under President Donald Trump, they have stopped.
    • The US Navy openly acknowledges the shift in tactics from Iran, which an expert told Business Insider was based on Trump's unpredictability and credibility with regard to military strikes.
    • But Iran has kept up its anti-US regional activity and encountered little resistance after toning down the more visible naval encounters. 

    Iran's navy made a point of harassing and humiliating the US Navy in 2016 after then-President Barack Obama had sealed the Iran deal, but since August 2017, the US Navy says things have changed.

    "It seems like they've absolutely made a conscious decision to give us more space," Navy Cmdr. William Urban recently said. "That is definitely a change in their behavior."

    Iran would charge US Navy ships with fast attack craft, buzz fighter jets with drones, and even shine lasers at helicopters operating at sea during Obama's presidency.

    But the worst, most embarrassing incident occurred in January 2016, when Iran's navy seized two US Navy rivernine boats and the 10 sailors on board after the ship wandered into Iranian waters due to mechanical issues. They broadcast footage of the sailors, crying, in detention, on television across the country. Iran later announced plans to build a monument commemorating the event.

    Later that year Iranian ships conducted "unsafe and unprofessional," and often taunting maneuvers around US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf five times in about a month.

    In September of that same year, Trump addressed Iran while on the campaign trail. "When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn't be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water,"Trump said.

    Shortly after Trump's election, the incidents noticeably stopped, despite Trump's open hostility towards Iran, compared to Obama's attempts to appease them.

    What happened?

    iran irgc navy fast attack craft

    The US Navy "openly acknowledged there was a shift that happened roughly around the time we had our political transition," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider.  "There was a status quo and the status quo changed."

    According to Schanzer, the Trump administration gave no official warning to Iran over the naval incidents, but instead, "the unpredictability of Trump has made Iran more reticent to test American red lines."

    Compared to the US Navy, the best on earth, Iran's navy just treads water. Iranians, even the hardliners, must know their small attack craft can't pose a meaningful threat to US ships, and even if they could, US retaliation would devastate the forces.

    Instead, rushing US ships and putting them on the defensive, as well as capturing sailors, works mainly for propaganda purposes for Iran, whose authoritarian regime controls the media and pushes a heavily anti-US agenda. 

    With Trump similarly focused on optics and pledging to revitalize the US military, Iran may have pivoted towards quietly pursuing its foreign policy goals, rather than making a scene that Trump could react to violently. 

    "There's another side of this," said Schanzer. "They understood that there was a change in the rules of the risk/reward calculus, but they also seem to understand that there was less of a policy with regard to their regional activity from Yemen to Iraq to Syria."

    So while Iran has dropped the very visible, US-centric naval run-ins, it's picked up on recruiting militias, deploying its armed forces to Syria, and supplying anti-US and anti-Israel militant groups. 

    "They realize if they want to actually achieve their objectives across the Middle East, they needed to dial back on the harassment that would needlessly provoke the US," Schanzer said. 

    SEE ALSO: Video shows Houthi rebels in Yemen using a jury-rigged Russian fighter jet missile to take on an F-15

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    china navy drill satellite

    • New satellite images reveal the massive scale of a Chinese naval drill earlier this month in the South China Sea.
    • The images, provided by Planet Labs Inc, confirm a Chinese carrier group has entered the vital trade waterway as part of what the Chinese navy earlier described as combat drills.
    • Sailing in a line formation more suited to visual propaganda than hard military maneuvers, the flotilla was headed by what appeared to be submarines, with aircraft above.

    HANOI/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Dozens of Chinese naval vessels are exercising this week with an aircraft carrier in a large show of force off Hainan island in the South China Sea, satellite images obtained by Reuters show.

    The images, provided by Planet Labs Inc, confirm a Chinese carrier group has entered the vital trade waterway as part of what the Chinese navy earlier described as combat drills that were part of routine annual exercises.

    The Liaoning carrier group last week traversed the Taiwan Strait, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry.

    The photos, taken on Monday, show what appear to be at least 40 ships and submarines flanking the carrier Liaoning in what some analysts described as an unusually large display of the Chinese military's growing naval might.

    Sailing in a line formation more suited to visual propaganda than hard military maneuvers, the flotilla was headed by what appeared to be submarines, with aircraft above.

    Jeffrey Lewis, a security expert at the California-based based Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said the images showed the first confirmation that the carrier was joining the drills.

    "It's an incredible picture," he said. "That’s the big news to me. Confirmation that, yes, the carrier participated in the exercise."

    Liaoning Aircraft Carrier

    While the Liaoning has previously entered the South China Sea as part of drills in uncontested training grounds south of Hainan, its annual exercises are closely watched by regional and international powers eyeing Beijing's growing military might.

    It is unclear where the flotilla was headed, or how long operations will last. China's defense ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

    Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the deployment as unusual for its size and scope.

    "Judging by the images, it does seem they are keen to show that elements of the South Sea Fleet are able to routinely join up with the carrier strike group from Dalian in the north," he said.

    "It does seem they want to show inter-fleet interoperability - something the (Chinese) navy has been quietly working on for some time."

    china navy drill exercise plan

    Chinese naval and coast guard forces have expanded rapidly in recent years and now patrol the vast swathes of the South China Sea, but little is known about their combat readiness and co-ordination.

    Koh said as well as the destroyers, frigates and submarines that would ordinarily support a carrier, the flotilla appeared to include a large oiler for re-supply as well as smaller corvettes and possibly fast attack catamarans.

    "While it highlights an extensive ability to deploy, we are still left to guess at the PLAN's combat readiness," Koh said.

    As well as Vietnam, China's claims in the South China Sea are disputed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei while Taiwan also has claims.

    The exercises come amid fresh signs of tension in the resource-rich waterway, with Vietnam recently halting oil exploration off its coast by Spanish firm Repsol under pressure from Beijing.

    Beijing also objected to a so-called freedom of navigation patrol by a U.S. warship last week close to one of its artificial islands in the Spratlys archipelago further south.


    SEE ALSO: US pilots in Syria fight at a huge disadvantage — and it could start a major war at any time

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    USS Wasp

    • The US and South Korea's upcoming military drills will reportedly feature the USS Wasp, the US's first-ever aircraft carrier to carry F-35 stealth jets.
    • The jets mark a huge upgrade in US military sea power and capability, and something North Korea just isn't prepared to deal with.
    • North Korea has made strides both towards nuclear weapons and diplomacy in the year since the last round of major military drills, but the US will remind Kim Jong Un that it still means business with the USS Wasp.

    The US's long-awaited F-35 stealth jet will feature in military drills with South Korea aboard the USS Wasp, a US Navy amphibious assault ship that became the first-ever ship deployed with combat-ready stealth jets onboard, CNN reports.

    The Wasp, and the squadron of US Marine Corps F-35 pilots onboard, will take part in the drills which kick off on April 1, even as the US and South Korea explore an unprecedented openness to dialogue from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

    Though South Korean President Moon Jae In and President Donald Trump have both agreed to meet with Kim, they remain committed to keeping up the "maximum pressure" strategy that both sides say has led to North Korea's new willingness to talk.

    As part of the pressure strategy, the US has pushed tougher-than-ever sanctions on North Korea, and leaned harder than ever on the prospect of using military force to denuclearize the peninsula.

    In April 2017, the US demonstrated that pressure with three aircraft carriers off North Korea's coast. In 2018, the US has a revolutionary new capability in a smaller carrier with F-35s, stealth aircraft that North Korea can't hope to spot or defend against.

    With the F-35 pilots trained specifically to tackle challenges in the Pacific and stealthily take out air defenses and hardened targets, a test pilot called the carrier configuration"the most powerful concentration of combat power ever put to sea in the history of the world."

    In 2017, North Korea responded to US and South Korean military drills with angry statements and missile tests, but this time around, Pyongyang has said it will suspend its missile testing.

    Since last year's US-South Korea drills, North Korea has demonstrated both the ability to hit the US with a nuclear weapon, and a newfound willingness to talk about denuclearization. The US in that time has stepped up military pressure while imposing crippling sanctions down to the level of individual businessmen and ships.

    As this year's annual military drills come around, there's a completely different mood as hope of negotiations lie on the corner, but the inclusion of the USS Wasp stacked with F-35s sends the message that it's still not safe. 

    SEE ALSO: US pilots in Syria fight at a huge disadvantage — and it could start a major war at any time

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    china navy drill satellite

    • Beijing put on a massive show of force on Monday.
    • More than 40 of its navy's ships sailed in formation — but not a very practical formation.
    • Experts say the US could wipe out almost the whole formation with a few bombers in a single pass.

    Beijing put on a massive show of force on Monday with more than 40 of its navy's ships sailing in formation with is sole operational aircraft carrier for one of the first times ever in the South China Sea, but a close look at the exercise shows something way off.

    Satellite imagery of the event, provided by Planet Labs, shows the incredible scale of the exercise, which mostly consisted of rows of two ships lined up neatly.

    The formation makes a good photo opportunity, but it's not practical for battle. 

    China showed off frigates, destroyers, aircraft, submarines, and an aircraft carrier, but a few US bombers could likely smoke the whole formation in a single pass. 

    "While impressive view, they would be a rich target pool for four B-1s bombers with 96 newly fielded long-range anti-ship cruise missiles," Hans Kristensen, a military expert and the Director of the Nuclear Information Project tweeted, referring to the US's B-1B Lancer bomber.

    The ships were not in a usual combat formation, and left exposed to air attacks that could devastate a large portion of the force outright in a battle.

    Though the huge formation "highlights an extensive ability to deploy, we are still left to guess at the [China's navy's] combat readiness," Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Reuters.

    China has worked hard to improve the practicality and capability of its navy in recent years, but as a force with virtually no combat experience, it sill lags a long way behind the US Navy and other tested forces.

    SEE ALSO: New satellite images show massive Chinese naval carrier drill in the South China Sea as Taiwan tensions heat up

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    New York City

    • China has lived with Taiwan just miles off its shores as an existential threat to the ruling communist party for years, but lately rhetoric has heated up and China's military has become more powerful.
    • A cyberwarfare expert told Business Insider that China would likely kick off a fight to take Taiwan by attacking the US with a devastating cyber attack.
    • This model follows how Russia took over Crimea in 2014, and most top military experts look at it as the future of warfare.

    China's has long lived with what it considers an existential threat just a few miles off its shores, the breakaway province of Taiwan, a democratically ruled island whose very existence scares China's ruling communist party to its core. 

    But with President Donald Trump's friendly approach to the island, and a new, pro-independence government in power in Taipei, China has been seen flexing its military muscle and talking tough about Taiwan in increasingly alarming ways.

    Though the US and other western countries provide weapons to Taiwan, the island of just 23 million can't reasonably expect to stand up to the massive mainland China alone.

    As a precondition for any sort of relations with the mainland, Beijing demands states only recognize China's communist government, not the democratic one in Taiwan that claims to be the country's true leadership.

    Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for Comodo with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that if war ever broke out between the two countries that claim to be China's rightful government, the first step could be the devastation of a US.

    "If there was a war that started where China wanted to retake Taiwan, the first thing that might happen is the lights might go out in New York City," Geers said. 

    China's future war plan

    chinese hackers china cyber

    China is known to have formidable cyber warfare capabilities, and is thought to have stolen tons of sensitive military technology from the US. Trump is currently pursuing fixes to the leak of US intellectual property into Chinese hands, which some estimate to cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

    Geers saw first hand how Russia employed hybrid warfare, a mix of cyber, information, and conventional fighting, to attack the Baltic states in 2008 and later annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

    Geers, like other top military minds, consider this a preview of the future of warfare, which will likely take place in all domains simultaneously. 

    "When they did they first electricity attack in the west in Ukraine, it was far from the field of battle," Geers said. "It's interesting that the lights went out on the western most part of Ukraine. It's one of those things that's eye opening about the transformation or evolution of warfare."

    For this reason, Geers thinks that China would stage a cyber attack on an important US city to blindside and distract the US.

    While the White House puzzled over how to get the infrastructure of a major financial hub back together, China's ships and planes could quickly make strides towards retaking Taiwan. 

    SEE ALSO: Trump is now more confident, unleashed to do what he wants — and it looks like war on all fronts

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    kim jong-un xi jinping

    • Kim Jong Un appeared to bury the hatchet with China during a meeting with its president, Xi Jinping.
    • The meeting came after a massive pressure campaign on his country initiated by President Donald Trump.
    • Kim has never faced a US that threatens North Korea as credibly as it does under Trump.
    • That real fear of nuclear war has motivated actors around the world to take action against Pyongyang.

    When Kim Jong Un met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week, two weeks after agreeing to meet with President Donald Trump, he came out of the shadows to make history.

    Since Trump took office, Kim has overseen a series of North Korean firsts. North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear device yet and its first intercontinental ballistic missile, and it has now conducted its first leader-to-leader act of diplomacy.

    But Trump has also offered up a first — the first credible threat of military force against Pyongyang.

    In his first year as president, Trump made a series of military overtures and outright threats to North Korea that undeniably put the region on edge.

    Facing a deeply unconventional and unpredictable US president, North Korea must have felt some of the heat too, as it reached out to Republican strategists and eagerly analyzed Trump's tweets and statements while seeking to know what to make of them.

    But as the fear grew, so did international cooperation. Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy against North Korea has brought unprecedented cooperation from China and Russia, Pyongyang's major backers and two parties that desire stability in the Korean Peninsula.

    Now Kim, motivated by crippling sanctions with his nuclear weapons program at a comfortable resting point, has changed his tone.

    Kim is setting up talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump, but before then China wanted to get a word in.

    Experts tell Business Insider that China is anxious over the prospect of talks progressing without it, possibly at the cost of its national security interests.

    Historically, China does not like North Korea under Kim's leadership. Kim has killed members of his own family over their ties to China.

    Kim was in power for seven years before traveling to Beijing, and he appears to have made that mood only hastily now that talks, or confrontation, with Trump loom.

    China, Japan, South Korea, and even Russia are now seeking to get in Kim's ear ahead of his meeting with Trump.

    Will Trump soften up once he talks to Kim? Maybe, maybe not.


    The prospect of dialogue has done nothing to make Trump's threat of military action less credible. In fact, by dismissing an already hawkish national security adviser in H.R. McMaster and replacing him with the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, who frequently advocates military action against North Korea, Trump's threats may have only grown more credible.

    Trump responded on Twitter to the news of Kim and Xi's meeting, saying there was a "good chance" for peace but also promising to keep up pressure on North Korea "at all cost."

    Bolton has repeatedly suggested that if talks between Kim and Trump are anything less than Kim discussing how and when he'll dismantle his nuclear weapons, the US will simply walk out.

    With the State Department understaffed to the point of near hollowness, Trump appears to have little to lean on besides his credibility in initiating war.

    As long as Trump's threat remains credible, he'll retain leverage in talks and in building international support for further sanctions on North Korea.

    If the talks do fail catastrophically to create any road to peace between the US and North Korea, Trump can then ponder military action against Pyongyang, knowing that in the eyes of the world he's come closer to a North Korean leader than any other US president.

    SEE ALSO: What Kim Jong Un talked about with Xi Jinping in China

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    Kim Jong Un

    • President Donald Trump accepted Kim Jong Un's offer to meet for talks, a decision that has seen Kim's international prestige skyrocket.
    • China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia all now want closer relations with Pyongyang, because Kim piqued Trump's interest by saying "denuclearization."
    • But denuclearization means something very different to Kim than to the outside world, and it may never come to pass.
    • Meanwhile, he's already reaped the benefits.

    When President Donald Trump accepted the offer to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move taken without consulting the State Department, he made Kim into the most wanted man in Asia.

    This move, ultimately, could be the US's undoing in the Pacific.

    Since then, China has buried considerable ill feelings toward Kim and had him over for a lavish summit with its president, Xi Jinping.

    On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in confirmed he would meet with Kim on April 27 in the demilitarized zone. Now the leaders of Japan and Russia want to sit down with Kim too.

    Kim's diplomatic coming out, which began amid South Korea's Winter Olympics, follows a year of furious missile testing and what the US believes was a thermonuclear detonation in North Korea.

    In November, Pyongyang declared its intercontinental ballistic missile program complete, signaling it believes it has missiles that can reliably target the US.

    In that light, Kim's planned tour of powers in the Pacific looks less like a cowed weakling begging for sanctions relief and more like the crowning of a new regional power.

    The magic word

    Kim Jong-un North Korea nuclear bomb

    Kim achieved an exponential leap in international recognition with a simple word: denuclearization.

    Cleverly, North Korea has couched talk of dismantling its nukes under a mountain of caveats but makes sure to reiterate the word in each new meeting.

    The US has always kept denuclearization as a precondition for talking with North Korea. But that word can be interpreted differently on either side of the Pacific, making it an arbitrary barrier.

    When North Korea talks of denuclearization, it says it's possible if the US ends its "hostile policy" toward North Korea. That includes sanctions, military exercises, and the stationing of US forces near its border with South Korea. All three of those activities are legal and welcomed by South Korea. Kim's nuclear and ballistic missile programs are not.

    It's unclear whether the US could accept the conditions set forth by North Korea, but Kim has already reaped the benefits.

    By saying the magic word, Kim passed Trump's thresholds for talks, and Trump accepted. Because Trump accepted the talks, China, possibly fearing it would be sidelined, set up its own talks.

    Because Japan fears the US may simply negotiate away North Korea's long-range missiles, leaving Japan still vulnerable to the shorter-range missiles, it now wants talks too.

    In that way, Kim has promised little and gained much.

    North Korea has a gross domestic product smaller than Malta's. Its military, without nuclear weapons behind it, is dated and second-rate. But with nuclear weapons in his pocket, Kim now has the world hanging on his every word.

    SEE ALSO: Trump says there's a 'good chance' of peace with North Korea after Kim Jong Un goes to China

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    M109 Paladin Howitzer

    • Russia has the US and NATO outgunned in eastern Europe, but US Army generals came up with a plan to counter it.
    • Instead of risking planes over Russia's fierce air defenses, the US will pivot to developing and deploying long-range artillery and missile systems to knock out defenses from afar.
    • With the changes recommended, the generals said the US would be able to fight Russia for weeks without even using air power.

    The US military and NATO have been significantly outgunned by Russia in eastern Europe for some time, but US Army generals recently laid out a plan to close the gap.

    As it stands, Russia has more tanks, aircraft, better air defenses, and more long range weapons systems than the US and NATO have in eastern Europe.

    The US has known for some time that its air superiority, something the US has held over enemies for 70 years, has come under serious threat, but now they're working on an answer.

    "Because of the power and the range and the lethality of these Russian air defenses, it's going to make all forms of air support much more difficult, and the ground forces are going to feel the effects," Gen. Robert Brown, who commands the US Army in the Pacific, recently said, according to

    He said the answer was to "push the maximum range of all systems under development for close, deep and strategic" strikes, and that the US has "got to outgun the enemy."

    Instead of risking US planes and pilots in covering US forces as they fight with Russia, the US should pivot to increasing the range of its rockets, artillery, and missiles, according to Brown. Then, using those systems, the US can knock out Russian defenses and keep its troops at bay, potentially fighting without air support for weeks, he said.

    Brown was speaking at the Association of the United States Army's Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

    Russia has "got a range advantage over us in a number of different areas, particularly cannons," John Gordon IV, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp, said at the event. "Typically, modern Russian cannons have got 50 percent to 100 percent greater range than the current generation of US cannons."

    army missile ATACMS

    Brown also said the US needs to extend the range of its current systems and those in development to meet the threat, specifically by bumping up the range of the Army Tactical Missile System to 499 kilometers, just under the 500 kilometer range limit the US is bound to by an arms control agreement.

    Brig. Gen. Stephen Maranian, commandant of the Army's Field Artillery School, said the new missiles would have "the ability to hit a ship at sea, the ability to hit moving targets on the land domain, the ability to have sub-munitions that attack heavy armored targets and have effects ... and the ability to use sensors to hone in on targets. Those are all aspects of future spirals of this missile that the base Precision Strike Missile will provide," noted. 

    Additionally, the US is working on a new self-propelled howitzer that would increase the range out to 40 kilometers, and increase the rate of fire.

    SEE ALSO: F-35s in Japan are still losing dogfights to F-15s sometimes — here's why

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    US Marines Syria bombing

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two personnel with the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State were killed and five were wounded by an improvised explosive device in Syria, the coalition said on Friday.

    The casualties appeared to be the first to be killed or wounded in an attack this year on the coalition.

    About 10 have been killed in non-combat-related incidents since Jan. 1, including seven in a helicopter crash, according to coalition statements and military sources.

    "Details pertaining to the incident are being withheld pending further investigation," the coalition said, adding that the explosion happened on Thursday at 2100 GMT. The wounded were evacuated for further treatment, according to the statement, which did not give the nationalities of the casualties.

    Islamic State militants continue to carry out attacks including bombings, ambushes and assassinations in Syria and Iraq despite the collapse last year of the cross-border "caliphate" declared in 2014 by their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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    South Korean (blue headbands) and U.S. Marines take positions as amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps fire smoke bombs during a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

    Joint-training exercises with allied nations is nothing new to the US military. It reinforces relations between foreign powers and familiarizes them with each other's standard operating procedures in the event of a military conflict.

    As one of these important allies, South Korea has trained with the US military for years to stabilize the Korean peninsula in case of a flashpoint crisis. Because North and South Korea are technically still at war, the US's presence is seen by many as a deterrent to a conflict with North Korea.

    The two major drills — Foal Eagle and Key Resolve — will include, respectively, 11,500 US troops and 290,000 South Korean troops, and 12,200 US troops and 10,000 South Korean troops.

    Although the drills were originally scheduled for March, it was postponed after North Korea resumed diplomatic relations with South Korea amid the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

    Unlike previous years where North Korea claimed the drills were a precursor to a military strike, North Korea's response to this year's exercises has been surprisingly muted.

    The Pentagon reiterated that the drills had a "defensive nature," and that this year's version would be "at a scale similar to that of the previous years."

    Check out the photos of the US and South Korean military in action:

    SEE ALSO: North Korea and South Korea met in the 'truce village' of Panmunjom — these extraordinary photos show what it's like

    South Korean amphibious assault vehicles throw smoke bombs as they make it to the shore during Foal Eagle, March 30, 2015.

    US Marines and South Korean soldiers await further orders inside their armored vehicle, during a joint combat training exercise.

    US Marines also train in South Korean vehicles. Here, US Marines run out from a South Korean LVT-7 during a joint landing exercise for Foal Eagle, in Pohang, South Korea, March 31, 2014.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Kim Jong Un Kpop pyongyang

    • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a surprise appearance at a K-pop concert in Pyongyang after some speculation over whether or not he'd actually show up — and he reportedly loved it. 
    • Kim and his wife saw South Korean K-pop group Red Velvet, Girls' Generation member Seohyun, and many others play at a "Spring is Coming" concert that he gave rave reviews of.
    • Kim's enjoyment of a show put on by South Korean performers show how much things have changed.
    • His father, Kim Jong Il, kidnapped South Korean performers and North Korea still puts citizens to death for watching South Korean media.

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a surprise appearance at a K-pop concert in Pyongyang after some speculation over whether or not he'd actually show up — and he reportedly loved it. 

    Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju saw South Korean K-pop group Red Velvet, Girls' Generation member Seohyun, and many others play at a "Spring is Coming" concert that appears to have captured his imagination. 

    "When such good atmosphere is preserved carefully and continuously, only the beautiful spring when new buds sprout and flowers blossom and the rich autumn when the crops are abundant will always be in the way of our fellow countrymen," Kim said, according to North Korean media. 

    Kim even told a South Korean performer he'd like to return the favor with a show in South Korea called "Autumn is Coming," according to NK News.

    "Please tell [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] that how great an event like this is," Kim reportedly said, also explaining that he reworked his busy schedule to see Red Velvet. 

    Kim and his wife watched the performance with South Korean officials including Minister Do Jong-whan of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, who said Kim "showed a lot of interest while asking about songs and lyrics during the South's performance," according to NK News.

    The performance also included some North Korean songs which were greeted with loud applause. And, as the event took place in Pyongyang, Kim himself was loudly applauded by the crowd.

    Kim's surprise visit to the show underscores a massive change in North and South Korean relations. Under Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, North Korea kidnapped South Korean artists to help film propaganda movies.

    In North Korea, citizens can be sentenced to death for simply possessing South Korean media. When South Korea used to air drop in media like DVDs, North Korea would respond extremely harshly. 

    But now, as tensions begin to thaw and Kim goes on a diplomatic offensive meeting with heads of state for the first time, his tone seems to have shifted. 

    Watch video of Kim's surprise appearance at the K-pop show below:

    SEE ALSO: Kim Jong Un became a regional power overnight by saying a single, meaningless word to Trump

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