NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
President Obama wants to kill or capture Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and has made striking the self-proclaimed caliph one of the highest priorities for his final year in office.
That goal was disclosed in a revealing interview with the president in The Atlantic magazine. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg quotes the president and a number of senior aides including Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser. The lengthy piece relates how the president and his aides define their foreign policy doctrine as: “Don’t do stupid sh—.”
According to the lengthy article, the president is intent on leaving office with a “clean barn” for the next president. But his most urgent priority is fighting the Islamic State that has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria and is expanding to several other parts of the world. Mr. Obama regards the group as a direct but not existential threat to U.S. national security.
Al-Baghdadi has been a target of U.S. military and intelligence officials since he emerged as the so-called “caliph” of the Islamic State in 2014. He is said to be on the still-secret U.S. “kill list” of terrorists that the U.S. government is authorized by the president to kill.
Defense officials say al-Baghdadi has been in the crosshairs several times. He was spotted and targeted at least three times by drone strikes at his Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Vehicle convoys that al-Baghdadi was believed to be traveling in also were targeted several times. In all cases so far, no strikes were carried out.
One official said al-Baghdadi has protected himself by staying close to a prison where a U.S. missile strike would presumably kill many of the captives. He also has been hiding within the civilian population so that any drone strike, even with a precision guided missiles, would kill innocent civilians.
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Mr. Obama sharply scaled back drone attacks several years ago over concerns that collateral damage was undermining support for allied counterterrorism efforts. He has imposed strict rules of engagement for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies that prohibit raids or attacks that could inflict heavy casualties outside of terrorist targets or other large-scale collateral damage.
Still, U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies are aggressively conducting intelligence-gathering operations that have made targeting al-Baghdadi a very high priority.
Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin disclosed in Senate testimony earlier this month that killing Islamic State leaders has been successful, with 160 leaders killed over the past 18 months.
Critics say Mr. Obama’s targeting strategy will be insufficient in thwarting the expansion of the Islamic State, now reaching out to North Africa, Central Asia and even Southeast Asia. The Islamist terror group appears to have a cadre of midlevel leaders who can be promoted to replace those taken out by drone strike and aircraft operations.
The Atlantic article also reveals why the Obama administration has been so unsuccessful in ideological counter-terrorism program, what many analysts see as the key to defeating the Islamic State over the long term.
Aides told Mr. Goldberg that the president “possesses a ‘no illusions’ understanding” of radical Muslims “but he has been careful about articulating that publicly, out of concern that he will exacerbate anti-Muslim xenophobia.”
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Russia’s new heavy ICBM
U.S. military and intelligence officials are closely monitoring Russia’s large-scale strategic nuclear forces buildup, including a new superheavy intercontinental ballistic missile called Sarmat. The Russian state-run Interfax news agency reported in January that the first ground tests of the 100-ton missile are expected this spring from Russia’s Plesetsk missile range.
A flight test could be carried out in the summer, indicating the development program is a high priority for Moscow.
The huge missile dubbed SS-X-30 by the Pentagon will replace aging SS-18 Satan missiles that are the core of Russia’s land-based nuclear missile forces.
The new monster missile is said to be capable of carrying between 10 and 15 warheads, and U.S. intelligence agencies estimate Moscow will produce an additional 500 warheads for the Sarmat missile force alone.
The Sarmat is one element of Russia’s large-scale strategic nuclear forces buildup that includes a new military doctrine that U.S. officials say could lower the threshold for a nuclear conflict. Other nuclear forces include new road-mobile ICBMs and new ballistic missile submarines.
The warhead buildup is raising questions about whether Moscow will abide by the terms of the 2010 New START arms treaty that limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads. The State Department disclosed in October that Russia added more than 100 nuclear warheads to its arsenal above the 1,550 number to be reached by the 2018 treaty deadline.
Russian state-run media have touted Sarmat as directed against U.S. missile defenses. Each missile is said to be capable of putting 10 tons of warheads or decoys on target with enough range to fly over the South Pole, as well as the North Pole.
Nuclear strikes in South Pole flight paths are said to be designed to defeat U.S. missile tracking radar and satellites that are oriented mainly against east-west missile flight and North Pole flight.
Polar strikes also can be used for space nuclear blasts that create electronics-frying electromagnetic pulses over thousands of miles.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear expert who specializes in Russian strategic forces, said Moscow is planning to deploy the monster missile in the 2018 to 2020 time frame.
Mr. Schneider stated in a report produced by the National Institute for Public Policy that retired Russian Maj. Gen. Vladimir Vasilenko, former head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute, has said Sarmat can attack the United States by flying over the South Pole.
The missile also reportedly will also be able to place a 5-ton payload in orbit. The capability suggests “one version of the Sarmat will be a space weapon,” Mr. Schneider stated.
The Russians also may be planning to arm the Sarmat with a conventional, non-nuclear warhead, suggesting it will have extreme accuracy in addition to the very large throw weight.
The missile also is planned for deployment in hardened underground silos and will be designed with warheads capable of penetrating U.S. missile defenses and electronic jamming.
One Russian report said Sarmat also could be used to launch hypersonic strike vehicles — ultra-high-speed maneuvering arms, including what was described as Object 4202 — a code name for Russia’s hypersonic weapon vehicle.
PLA sub targeted naval formation
A Chinese submarine commander recently boasted of conducting a mock attack on a U.S. naval formation during a submarine patrol near the East China Sea.
The commander of a submarine identified as No. 336 was honored for his underwater exploits in stealth, underwater operations and a test launch of a missile. According to the laudatory piece in the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, the submarine is part of the East China Sea fleet and was described as an unspecified “new type submarine” in keeping with Chinese military secrecy in writing about its forces’ activities.
According to Xinhua, the submarine skipper, Huang Donghai, was conducting a combat readiness patrol when he carried out the simulated attack.
“During the underwater patrol, sonar suddenly discovered a powerful noise signal, which Huang immediately interpreted as a formation of large surface vessels,” the Xinhua report said.
“Should he quietly evade them or seize the initiative and accomplish something? This was a one in a million opportunity! Huang Donghai commanded the submarine to use tactics to silently approach the formation. … Like an underwater sniper, Huang Donghai quietly took aim at the opponent, successfully organizing and carrying out a simulated attack. The opponent did not detect any of this.”
Chinese submarines on two occasions were known to have targeted U.S. warships in similar practice strikes.
The first took place in October 2006 when a Song-class submarine stalked the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and surfaced undetected within torpedo range of the carrier. In October, another Chinese submarine carried out a simulated cruise missile attack on the aircraft carrier USS Reagan during an encounter near the Sea of Japan.
U.S. officials said the incident violated China’s commitment to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a bilateral agreement designed to reduce the risk of a shooting incident.
Highlighting the sub commander’s bravery, Xinhua reported that during a storm Huang Donghai spent four hours “lashed himself to the flagpole of the submarine bridge, put on goggles, and used his eyes to closely monitor the surface of the surrounding sea lane.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.