France 24 published an interview with a man it described as a Russian paramilitary chief who provides Russian citizens access to mercenary work in Syria in which he said his countrymen had been galvanized by reports that they were taking an embarrassing loss to US forces.
“Each week I receive five or six new requests,” the man said. “Some call me by phone; others come to see me.”
He said that about 100 people in Russia’s Yekaterinburg region, where he is based, were “planning to go to Syria.”
The man said that after reports that US forces in early February 2018 crushed an advance of fighters loyal to the Syrian government — troops said to have contained hundreds of Russians — he had seen a change in the volunteers.
“Now it’s more about getting revenge than it is about money,” he said.
What it’s like to be a Russian mercenary in Syria
Russia is believed to use military contractors in Syria rather than its military. Some experts speculate it’s to conceal Russia’s true combat losses in Syria while it uses its state-run media to tell citizens the operation is cheap and effective.
For Russian military contractors, the work promises brutal and dangerous conditions in which they can expect to be asked to kill to protect business or political interests. They stand to make a decent wage, but the man said many of them don’t live that long.
“If you sign up with a private military company, you have sold yourself to them for money,” the man said.
He added: “The company can use you however it wants. What will happen to you after your death? If you’ve been turned into mincemeat, so what? They put you in a bag, close the coffin and — in the best-case scenario — send you home. In the worst, they bury you there. If you are ready to earn money by killing people and defending the commercial interests of others, then that’s fine.”
One factor contributing to the losses of Russian contractors in Syria is a lack of air cover provided by Russia’s or Syria’s military, the man said.
In the battle on Feb. 7, 2018, US airstrikes, artillery, and Apache helicopters strafed and decimated the pro-government forces, who are said to have had no anti-aircraft weaponry.
Without air power or any ability to combat aircraft, it’s unclear how Russian military contractors on the ground could do any better against US-aligned forces.
The man told France 24 that 218 Russians died in the battle, while news reports have indicated as many as 300 were killed or wounded. Russia has said five citizens may have died while “several dozens” were wounded.
How is the Kremlin playing the story?
But just because Russia’s military, which has considerable airpower nearby, didn’t protect the Russians involved in the battle doesn’t mean it didn’t know about the advance.
Citing US intelligence reports with intercepted communications, The Washington Post reported last week that a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin told a senior Syrian official he had “secured permission” from the Kremlin before the advance.
Reuters has reported that the advance on US-backed forces was intended to gauge the US’s response, which may have been stronger than anticipated.
The paramilitary chief told France 24 that one Russian contractor had 150 men in freezers who were described to him as “minced meat.” According to the man, the families of Russians killed in the battle won’t be informed until after Russia’s election — if at all.
“We all know why,” the man said. “There’s no problem keeping the deaths secret.”
President Donald Trump said June 20, 2018, that the repatriation of the remains of U.S. troops listed as missing from the Korean War has already begun. However, military officials who would assist in the work of repatriating these troops have yet to confirm any movement on their promised return.
“We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back,” Trump told a cheering crowd at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Reuters reported.
The White House transcript of the event quoted Trump as saying “We got back our fallen heroes, the remains.”
It was not immediately clear what Trump meant by “sent back,” or where the process stood in terms of delivering the remains into the custody of the U.S. military, but the Wall Street Journal reported June 20, 2018, that the return was imminent and could involve more than 250 sets of remains.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
The Journal’s report, citing a U.S. official, said that Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, was likely to preside at a solemn repatriation ceremony at Osan Air Base south of Seoul.
Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said June 21, 2018, at the annual conference of the National League of POW/MIA Families that he has been working closely on arranging for repatriations with Kelly McKeague, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
Schriver, who represented the Pentagon at talks with the North Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone and at the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said the U.S. had a plan in place for repatriations.
“We’re ready to go as soon as we get agreement on the part of the North Koreans,” he said.
“I’m very confident that this is one we can move out quickly on,” Schriver continued in his speech. “We think they have 200 or so box sets of remains and we hope there’s a unilateral repatriation soon.”
In a statement on June 18, 2018, DPAA said that DPRK officials had in the past indicated that had up to 200 sets of recovered remains in their possession.
“The commitment established within the Joint Statement between President Trump and Chairman Kim would repatriate these as was done in the early 1990s and would reinforce the humanitarian aspects of this mission,” DPAA said.
Once the remains are returned, they were to be transferred to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and the DPAA’s Central Identification Laboratory for the painstaking and lengthy process of identification for the return of the remains to the families.
Spokesmen for DPAA were not immediately available for comment on Trump’s remarks but said Tuesday that DPAA had yet to be notified to prepare for returns.
At the Pentagon June 20, 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that discussions on the return of remains were “ongoing right now, but I don’t have any updates for you. I know that we’re engaged on it.”
At the Singapore summit, Trump and Kim signed a joint declaration committing to the “immediate repatriation” of already identified POW/MIA remains of U.S. troops.
According to DPAA, more than 7,800 Americans have not been accounted for from the Korean War.
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @military.com on Twitter.
MOSCOW — You might think governments seeking digital oversight of their citizens would avoid invoking the author who coined the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” and implanted the nightmare of total state surveillance in the imaginations of millions of readers.
Think again, because Russian officials appear to disagree.
According to the business daily Vedomosti, contracts exceeding 2 billion rubles ($29 million) have been signed for the procurement and installation in schools across Russia of surveillance cameras linked to a system that has facial-recognition capability and is called Orwell, after the British author of dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm.
The company tasked with executing the project on behalf of regional governments is the National Center of Informatization (NCI), a subsidiary of state defense and technology conglomerate Rostec, Vedomosti reported on June 15.
The video surveillance systems have been delivered to 1,608 schools across Russia, an unnamed representative of the company told the newspaper, adding that the equipment was intended to keep tabs on students’ comings and goings and identify strangers who attempt to enter school grounds, among other things.
Elvis-Neotech, a subsidiary of state nanotechnology company Rosnano, is responsible for preparing the systems for sale, according to Yevgeny Lapshev, a representative of that company. Lapshev told Vedomosti that the Orwell system will become a security feature in all of Russia’s schools in the coming years — more than 43,000 in all.
On June 16, the media outlet RBK cited an anonymous NCI representative who disputed aspects of the Vedomosti report, saying that the company had not signed contracts for the delivery of video equipment to 43,000 schools.
The representative told RBK that NCI had taken part in a pilot program to equip 1,600 Russian schools with video surveillance systems that were not equipped with facial recognition, and that a decision on expanding the program to all Russian schools was yet to be made.
The reported plans come after a rise in recent years in violent incidents at Russian schools, including a spate of stabbings in late 2017 and early 2018 that prompted renewed calls from lawmakers for increased security measures and strict monitoring of visitors.
“The requirements for training and certifying employees of private security organizations, especially those guarding schools and kindergartens, must be as strict as possible,” Vasily Piskarev, chairman of parliament’s Committee on Security and Corruption Control, said after a knife incident in October 2019.
But amid the push to expand monitoring capabilities and beef up security at schools, rights activists in Russia are warning that facial recognition and other surveillance technologies are being used much more widely and with minimal oversight, leading to a curtailment of freedom of speech and movement and ultimately toward a loss of data privacy.
Since March, when Russia’s coronavirus epidemic began, the authorities have used facial-recognition technology to identify and fine quarantine violators, deploying — in Moscow alone — a network of over 100,000 cameras that link to a central database accessible to thousands of law enforcement officials at any time.
In addition, a range of smartphone apps and digital passes unveiled since March — some of which remain mandatory for people with COVID-19 symptoms despite the lifting on June 9 of many lockdown restrictions — have prompted fears among data-privacy campaigners that those and other new digital tools may integrate into a ratcheted-up, post-pandemic surveillance apparatus.
Alyona Popova, an activist who launched a lawsuit in October 2019 against Moscow’s use of facial-recognition cameras, warned that “under the guise of fighting the coronavirus,” officials are working to implement “total surveillance.”
Last fall, Russia’s Education Ministry clarified the criteria under which facial recognition could be used in schools. All parties, including school employees and the parents of students, would have to give permission, the newspaper Izvestia quoted an official as saying.
British, French, Italian, and German jets have simulated flight interceptions over Western Europe as part of NATO maneuvers to deter Russian planes from entering alliance airspace.
The NATO drills on Sept. 12, 2018, came at the same time that Russia was showing off its most sophisticated air-defense system as it practiced fighting off a mock attack during military maneuvers of its own, the largest it has ever conducted.
The activity comes amid persistently high tensions between Russia and the West over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Syria and its alleged interference in elections in the United States and European countries.
In the NATO drills, fighter pilots from alliance members simulated the interception of a Belgian military transport plane en route to Spain. Visual inspections were made by flying off the wings at speeds of 900 kilometers an hour.
NATO has some 60 jets regularly on alert to defend its airspace. A record 870 interceptions were recorded of Russian aircraft in the Baltic region in 2016.
“NATO is relevant. This is not theoretical,” Spanish Air Force Lieutenant General Ruben Garcia Servert said aboard the Belgian plane.
As he spoke, Italian Eurofighters flew close to the cockpit to simulate interceptions, later joined by British Typhoons and French Mirages.
The European members of NATO are looking to display their commitments to their defense in the face of criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump that alliance members are not contributing enough financially to the alliance.
President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The Western alliance is currently negotiating an agreement that would have each member’s air force defend any other’s airspace under a “single sky” concept.
Currently, each country defends its own airspace, although other members help defend the airspace of the Baltic states, which do not have enough fighter jets of their own.
NATO is planning to hold its biggest maneuvers in 16 years when it conducts the Trident Juncture drills in Norway in October and November 2018.
The drills will feature more than 40,000 troops, including some from non-NATO members Finland and Sweden.
Meanwhile, Russia is conducting massive military exercises across its central and eastern regions, weeklong war games the Defense Ministry said would involve some 300,000 personnel — twice as many as the biggest Soviet maneuvers of the Cold War era.
Russian President Vladimir Putin inspected the drills in eastern Siberia on Sept. 13, 2018, and insisted that they were not targeted at any country.
“Russia is a peaceful nation,” Putin said at a firing range in the Chita region. “We do not and cannot have any aggressive plans,” he added.
On Sept. 12, 2018, the war games involved Russia’s newest S-400 surface-to-air defense system, which NATO considers a threat to its aircraft.
In 2017 Moscow signed a contract to sell the S-400 system to Turkey, angering NATO and particularly the United States, which threatened to suspend delivery of its F-35 stealth aircraft to Ankara.
The drills simulated a “massive missile attack” by an “unnamed enemy,” military official Sergei Tikhonov said.
The exercises, which also involve Chinese and Mongolian soldiers, will run through Sept. 17, 2018.
A good MRE goes a long way for troops deployed or in the field. Sure, it’s not a home-cooked meal, but everything on this year’s official MRE menu looks amazing.
In every Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE), there are a few good items to trade. Generally, the worse the entree is, the better the extras that come with it are. Troops who get tossed the dreaded egg-and-cheese-omelet meal at least eat something decent — it comes with Poptarts. If you get something amazing, like the beef stew, then the sides are kind of garbage — like powdered mashed potatoes. This diversity in quality has given rise to a well-understood bartering system between troops.
This kept troops from ratf*cking a box of MREs to take the good ones and leaving the awful ones for troops who didn’t. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeff Lowry)
Things are looking good for hungry troops. Not only is the long-awaited “Pizza MRE” officially coming, the least-liked items are now gone, too. According to troop reviews, the “Pizza MRE” is outstanding. In fact, there aren’t any good ones and bad ones anymore — they all seem great.
There was a hold on the “Pizza MRE” for a few years. The Defense Logistics Agency, the minds doing the science behind each MRE, needed to find a way to keep each one edible after months of shelf storage. In earlier editions, the crust would start going brown — not rotten, but discolored. Apparently, all it took was adding some rosemary extract and now they’re completely shelf-safe.
To simulate the three-year lifecycle, they placed the boxes in a lab at 100 degrees for six months. Everything seems fine, troops love it, and now it’s ready to get stolen out of every MRE box shipped out. This year’s menu also replaces Asian-style beef strips, which were only good for the accompanying peanut butter and jelly, with beef goulash. The Italian Sausage also now comes with some beef jerky.
Air Force F-15 Eagle pilots are helping to guard the skies over Iceland for the eleventh time since NATO’s Icelandic Air Surveillance mission began.
The 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron began flying operations here this week in support of the mission, highlighting America’s commitment to NATO and the strength of its ties with Iceland. The squadron is tasked with supplying airborne surveillance and interception capabilities to meet its host’s peacetime preparedness needs and bolster the security and defense of allied nations.
During their rotation, the squadron will maintain an alert status 24 hours a day, seven days a week as part of their peacetime mission. This means they are ready to respond within minutes to any aircraft that may not properly identify themselves, communicate with air traffic control or have a flight path on file.
Strengthening NATO Partnerships
“This deployment gives us the opportunity to strengthen our NATO partnerships and alliances and train in a different location while continuing to improve our readiness and capability for our alert commitment,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Cody Blake, 493rd EFS commander. “Our overall expectation is to maintain a professional presence in everything we do.”
To remain vigilant, the squadron performs daily “training scrambles” in which they simulate real-world alert notification and execute planned protocols to ensure a speedy response.
More than 250 airmen assigned to U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and 13 F-15C/D Eagles deployed from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, with additional support from U.S. airmen assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Four of the aircraft are tasked with direct support of the Icelandic Air Surveillance mission, while the additional nine aircraft will conduct training missions, providing pilots invaluable experience operating in unfamiliar airspace.
An F-15C Eagle flies over Iceland during a flight in support of the Icelandic Air Policing mission Sept. 15, 2010. The IAP is conducted as part of NATO’s mission of providing air sovereignty for member nations and has also been conducted by France, Denmark, Spain and Poland.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Andrew Rose)
While providing critical infrastructure and support, Iceland has looked to its NATO allies to provide airborne surveillance and interception capabilities to meet its peacetime preparedness needs since 2008.
“Every year, we experience how qualified the air forces of the NATO nations are and how well trained they are to conduct the mission,” said Icelandic Coast Guard Capt. Jon B. Gudnason, Keflavik Air Base commander. “This is what makes NATO such a great partner.”
NATO allies deploy aircraft and personnel to support this critical mission three times a year, with the U.S. responsible for at least one rotation annually. So far, nine nations have held the reigns in support of Iceland: Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal and the U.S.
The Air ForceWC-130H aircraft veered to the left on the runway, almost rolling into the grass before the crew was able to get it airborne.
The pilot quickly made the decision to return to the Georgia airfield they had just departed. The pilot directed the shutdown of engine one, operating on the remaining three.
“Coming back,” the pilot repeated five times over the next 30 seconds.
Investigators said that within those few seconds the pilot improperly applied nine more degrees with the left rudder, “which resulted in a subsequent skid below three-engine minimum controllable airspeed, a left-wing stall, and the [mishap aircraft’s] departure from controlled flight.”
No other “meaningful direction” was given to the crew other than an order to “brace” just before impact.
The plane was airborne for two minutes overall before it crashed down into Georgia State Highway 21 roughly 1.5 miles northeast of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, killing all aboard.
A newly released mishap report determined that the WC-130 crash that claimed the lives of nine members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard in 2018 was largely due to pilot error. But troubling engine and maintenance issues documented in the aging aircraft raise more questions about the cause of the catastrophic May 2, 2018 mishap.
C-130J Hercules and WC-130J Hercules fly in formation during an Operation Surge Capacity exercise April, 5, 2014, over the Mississippi Gulf Coast region.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicholas Monteleone)
The WC-130, which belonged to the 156th Airlift Wing, Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, had recurring issues with its first engine, according to the Aircraft Accident Investigation
Board Report released Nov. 9, 2018. The issues were documented a month before the aircraft’s final flight, as well as the day of the deadly crash.
The crew should have more closely followed emergency procedure and called for immediate action after discovering one of the aircraft’s engines was malfunctioning, Millard said. Instead, the malfunction led to loss of control of the plane, causing it to crash, the report found.
Experts who spoke with Military.com, however, pointed out that lapses in maintenance deeply disadvantaged the crew even before the aircraft left the runway. The plane, which had been in service more than 50 years, was on its final journey to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona when it went down.
“The engine malfunction is most definitely large factor and I would say the catalyst for the events that unfolded,” said an Air Force instructor pilot who flies a mobility aircraft and agreed to speak to Military.com on background about the report’s findings. “It appears the [report] narrowed in on a particular piece of the engine (the valve housing assembly) which had intermittent issues with [revolutions per minute] over its lifetime with multiple different engines.”
Nine died in the crash: Maj. José R. Román Rosado, the pilot; Maj. Carlos Pérez Serra, the navigator; 1st Lt. David Albandoz, a co-pilot; Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini, a mechanic; Master Sgt. Mario Braña, a flight engineer; Master Sgt. Eric Circuns, loadmaster; Master Sgt. Jean Audriffred, crew member; Master Sgt. Víctor Colón, crew member; and Senior Airman Roberto Espada, crew member.
The Air Force ordered an immediate investigation into the accident. Days later, after Military Times published an in-depth report showing that military aviation accidents have increased over the last five years, the service directed its wing commanders to hold a one-day pause in order to conduct a safety review with airmen, assessing trends and criteria that may have led to the recent rash of crashes.
Unsolved maintenance problems
The newly released investigation shows that the plane was cleared for flight even though the recorded oscillation data of the plane’s outermost left engine did not match its intended performance.
The WC-130 made its ferry flight from Puerto Rico to Savannah, Georgia, on April 9, 2018. And the flight crew operating the [mishap aircraft] “experienced an RPM issue with engine one, and reported the incident for troubleshooting and repair,” the report said.
While the crew found a fix, maintainers struggled to replicate both the in-flight operations and the solution the pilots used to better understand the what went wrong. They found they couldn’t recreate the crew’s original solution, which was to switch “on the propeller governor control to mechanical governing,” to see if that rectified the issue, it said.
A U.S. Air Force Lockheed C-130E-LM Hercules (s/n 64-0510) from the 198th Airlift Squadron, 156th Airlift Wing, Puerto Rico Air National Guard, prepares to take off from Muniz ANGB, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 29, 2004.
According to post-mishap interviews, during a second maintenance engine run, the “mishap maintainers observed engine one produced 99% revolutions per minute,” the report said.
But the digital flight data recorder (DFDR) said otherwise.
The DFDR indicated “engine one never reached sustained RPM above 96.8% and had significant oscillations between 95% and 98%,” it said.
The Air Force investigators said that when performing an engine run, the [technical order] requires a range “of 99.8% to 100.02% RPM, as displayed on a precision tachometer, to verify an engine is operating properly at 100%.2.”
The maintainers, who failed to use a precision instrument, missed a chance to diagnose a fluctuating, weaker engine.
“Good enough” mentality
The maintainers should have noted these red flags, the instructor pilot who spoke with Military.com said.
“The maintainers… failed to properly conduct the inspection of the engine,” the instructor pilot said. “The crew likely would have never stepped to the aircraft that day, at least not without the engine being verified to have reached the required power threshold, versus over 2 percent lower than the minimum.”
In the report, maintainers are faulted for having a “good enough” mentality about the aircraft’s condition.
Twitter user @MikeBlack114, a self-identified Air Force aircraft maintenance officer, also faulted the “good enough” mentality as a reason mistakes were made in a tweet thread. Furthermore, leadership should have paid better attention, he said.
“I’ll let someone with wings address the aircrew piece, but the mx [maintenance] portion is almost unfathomable,” Black said in a Twitter thread. “If you’re in a leadership position of an organization involved with flying and you aren’t uncovering the skeletons (believe me, they’re there, just a question of how severe they are) you aren’t looking hard enough.”
Another problem, according to the report, was the maintainers observing the aircraft did not use a tachometer to justify the data.
The report noted that they had conducted the engine test runs without the instrument because the compatible adapter plug to connect the precision tachometer to the aircraft was not available.
“During the engine runs and without the use of a precision tachometer, [mishap maintainer one] and [mishap maintainer two] knew that 100% RPM was the speed the engine should operate at, but believed 99% was sufficient to conclude their maintenance because of the wider gauge range provided in the [technical order],” the report said. “Thus, the mishap maintainers never corrected the engine one discrepancy and did not resolve the RPM issue.”
On May 2, 2018, engine one’s RPMs once again revealed an anomaly.
During takeoff, engine one’s RPMs fluctuated and couldn’t be stabilized when the first mishap pilot “advanced the throttle lever into the flight range,” according to the report.
“Engine one RPM and torque significantly decayed, which substantially lowered thrust,” investigators added.
While the banked turn the pilots made into the failed engine “was well below the minimum air speed needed for proper control of the aircraft, the [mishap aircraft] did still have enough airspeed to maintain flight,” the report said.
“The crew put the aircraft in a disadvantageous energy state by rotating (lifting off) 5 knots early and failing to accelerate as required by the procedures,” the instructor pilot said. “Unfortunately, this was not an unrecoverable situation by any means, and one crews in all airframes train to regularly.”
The reason for the initial flight in April 2018 was to conduct routine in-tank fuel cell maintenance in Georgia. The 165th Airlift Wing at Savannah Air National Guard Base had the means to do this, unlike the Puerto Rico Guard’s 156th Wing.
Puerto Rico’s facilities sustained substantial damage during Hurricane Maria and could not offer the maintenance at home station, the report said.
Although Adjutant Gen. Isabelo Rivera, the commanding officer of the Puerto Rico National Guard, said at the time of the crash the aircraft was more than 60 years old and one of the oldest C-130s in the fleet, its history and maintenance record say otherwise.
The aircraft, tail number 65-0968, rolled off the assembly line in 1965 as a standard C-130E, its records show.
“Sometime in the early 1970’s, it was converted to a WC-130H for use in weather reconnaissance (the “W” designation indicates the weather modifications),” the report said.
The engines were also “upgraded from T56-A-7 to the T56-A-15 at that time (which changed the “E” designation to “H”),” it said.
The aging aircraft life was extended because the wing had been expected to change missions. But that transition never came.
The fiscal 2016 budget “initially divested the six WC-130H aircraft from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard “and provided direction to move the 156th Airlift Wing to the RC-26, a manned Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform,” the report said. “However, this direction did not prove viable, as there was no requirement for a manned ISR mission in the United States Northern Command Theater.”
Millard, the investigator, said in the report there were no outstanding time compliance technical orders that would have restricted the plane from from flying.
Still, there should have been more transparency, the instructor pilot said.
“As an aircraft commander, there’s a ‘trust but verify’ mentality with the maintenance crews, but our knowledge is limited. So when a crew chief hands me the signed forms,” he said, “I have to trust those procedures and previous discrepancies have been fixed in accordance with the maintenance technical orders.”
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
A military space plane spread its wings and a rocket stretched its legs during SpaceX’s Sept. 7 launch of a classified mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket rumbled from historic pad 39A at 10 a.m., as weather cooperated a day before Brevard County planned mandatory barrier island evacuations ahead of Hurricane Irma’s projected arrival.
On top of the rocket was the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an unmanned mini-shuttle resembling one of NASA’s retired orbiters, but about a quarter the size at 29 feet long and windowless. The program was riding for the first time on a SpaceX rocket, after four turns on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V.
To preserve the mission’s secrecy, SpaceX cut off its broadcast a few minutes into the flight, after nine Merlin main engines cut off and the first-stage booster fell away.
About two hours later, Gen. John Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, confirmed on Twitter that the launch was a success.
Boeing, which built and operates two reusable X-37B orbiters housed in former shuttle hangars at KSC, did the same.
After separating, the roughly 16-story Falcon booster pirouetted in space and flew back toward a pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The rocket stage touched down on four landing legs, announcing its return with sonic booms that reported across the region.
For the first time since its meteoric rise in 2012 amid the chaos of war, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria is in retreat, battling rival militant groups in the north and fighting for survival in a key foothold near the capital, Damascus.
Over the past three weeks, the extremist group has been driven from nearly all of the northern province of Aleppo, losing dozens of fighters in battles there and in nearby Idlib province.
The fighting poses a major challenge to the militant group, already beset by infighting and a string of assassinations that have taken out some of its top leaders. Unlike previous battles in which al-Qaeda-linked fighters were able to quickly crush their opponents, the fighting has been particularly fierce, with the militants losing dozens of villages.
The al-Qaeda-linked coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee is still one of Syria’s most powerful armed groups, with fighters numbering in the thousands.
While the U.S.-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian troops have focused on driving the Islamic State group from the country’s east, the al-Qaeda-linked group has consolidated its control over Idlib, where it remains the strongest force despite its recent losses there.
After the defeat of IS, al-Qaeda is seen as the main jihadi group that rejects any peace talks to try to end Syria’s seven-year conflict. Its presence in northern Syria and in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta has provided a pretext for President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers to wage war against opposition-held territory, since various de-escalation and cease-fire agreements have excluded al-Qaeda.
Several hundred al-Qaeda fighters holed up in eastern Ghouta have become a burden to the armed opposition battling government forces there, which has pressed the extremists to leave the area for their stronghold in Idlib in order to avoid the current crushing offensive.
The group’s presence has also raised concern in nations from Turkey to the United States that fear the global network founded by Osama bin Laden could use its presence in northern Syria to launch terrorist attacks around the world.
The recent fighting appears to have been triggered by the February 2018 assassination of a senior al-Qaeda official, Abu Ayman al-Masri, who was riding in a car with his wife when members of a rival militant group, Nour el-Din el-Zinki, fired on their vehicle, killing al-Masri and wounding his wife.
The killing led to battles in Aleppo and Idlib that have raged for the past three weeks.
The shooting was preceded by the merger of Nour el-Din el-Zinki and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham, both former al-Qaeda allies now turned enemies.
Amid the recent battles, the new coalition, the Syria Liberation Front, has forced the al-Qaeda fighters to retreat west to Idlib.
The insurgents say that the war against al-Qaeda will not stop until the jihadi group is crushed in Syria — an ambitious goal. It is also a striking statement, considering the rival groups once turned to al-Qaeda’s experienced and battle-hardened fighters for support in the battle against Assad’s forces.
Yazan Mohammed, a media activist based in Idlib province, said that although al-Qaeda has lost some territory in the recent fighting, the group is far from being defeated.
The al-Qaeda fighters are “not scouts. They are an organized and powerful group,” Mohammed said.
In recent years, tens of thousands of rebels and civilians from around the country have fled to Idlib or been forced there by government troops, raising concerns that the presence of al-Qaeda will give the government a pretext to storm the province under the cover of Russian airstrikes as it has elsewhere, including in Aleppo in late 2016 and in the current offensive in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the coalition battling IS, said in 2017 that Idlib is the largest al-Qaeda haven since bin Laden’s days in Afghanistan.
“This war will not stop,” said Bassam Haji Mustafa, a senior official with the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group. “This is a real war against al-Qaeda, its extremist ideas and terrorism.”
After the recent battlefield losses, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Abu Yaqzan al-Masri, released an audio asserting the militant group will soon crush the offensive and the focus will again be “to fight infidels,” an apparent reference to the West.
The commander’s comments coincided with a counteroffensive in which the al-Qaeda affiliate regained some villages it had lost earlier, although its presence in Aleppo province has almost ceased to exist.
Local activists said the al-Qaeda counteroffensive was backed by members of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a powerful group consisting mostly of jihadis from China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s seven-year conflict, says the fighting that broke out on Feb. 20, 2018, has killed 223 fighters on both sides, including 132 from al-Qaeda’s affiliate.
Despite losing dozens of villages in the recent battles, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda will be defeated easily in Idlib, where the militants have crushed many of their opponents in recent years.
“They will not be able to defeat the Committee,” said Abu Dardaa al-Shami, who sometimes fights with the al-Qaeda affiliate but refused to take part in the current battles, saying he only fights against government forces.
North Korea’s involvement in major hacking offensives appears to be growing.
The country has been linked to a recent attack on South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges, according to cybersecurity experts.
Researchers from the U.S. cybersecurity firm Recorded Future say a new hacking campaign targeting South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Coinlink employed the same malware code used in the 2014 attack on Sony Pictures and last year’s global WannaCry attack.
Beginning in late 2017, hackers attempted to collect the passwords and emails of employees at Coinlink, but were unsuccessful.
Recorded Future released a full report on Jan. 16 analyzing the methods used in the recent Coinlink attack versus methods used in previous cyberattacks. The firm found what it called strong evidence that a cybercrime unit called the Lazarus group was behind the Coinlink attack, as well as several previous large-scale campaigns, based on the type of code they have used in previous attacks.
According to the report, the Lazarus group operates under a North Korean state-sponsored cyber unit.
The group has been conducting operations since at least 2009, when they launched an attack on US and South Korean websites by infecting them with a virus known as MyDoom, the report said. The group has mainly targeted South Korean, U.S. government, and financial entities, but has also been linked to the major attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.
In recent years, researchers noticed a change in North Korean cyber operations as they began to shift their focus to attacking financial institutions in order to steal money to fund Kim Jong Un’s regime, the report said.
In 2017, the group began targeting cryptocurrencies, and their first offensive was aimed at Bithumb, one of the world’s largest bitcoin exchanges. Lazarus hackers stole $7 million in the Bithumb heist at the time, according to the report.
The WannaCry attack in 2017, which affected computer systems at schools, hospitals, and businesses across 150 countries, also used malware code that was linked to Lazarus.
Additionally, a December attack on the South Korean bitcoin exchange YouBit reportedly mirrored previous North Korean offensives, leading experts to suggest that groups associated with the North were behind that attack as well.
Recorded Future’s report comes amid recent allegations that North Korea has begun mining and hacking cryptocurrencies in order to sidestep crippling economic sanctions.
“This is a continuation of their broader interest in cryptocurrency as a funding stream,” Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic-threat development at Recorded Future, told the Wall Street Journal this week.
The U.S. has released statements blaming North Korea for several recent attacks. North Korea still denies any involvement, despite mounting evidence.
A former medic with the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) that heroically fought his way up a mountain to render aid to his Special Forces teammates and their Afghan commando counterparts will receive the Medal of Honor.
The White House announced Sept. 21, 2018, that former Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer II went above and beyond the call of duty April 6, 2008, while assigned to Special Operations Task Force – 33 in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. He will receive the highest military award for valor at a White House ceremony, Oct. 1, 2018.
In April 2008, Shurer was assigned to support Special Forces operators working to take out high-value targets of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin in Shok Valley.
As the team navigated through the valley, a firefight quickly erupted, and a series of insurgent sniper fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms and machine gun fire forced the unit into a defensive fighting position.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II graphic.
Around that time, Shurer received word that their forward assault element was also pinned down at another location, and the forward team had sustained multiple casualties.
With disregard for his safety, Shurer moved quickly through a hail of bullets toward the base of the mountain to reach the pinned-down forward element. While on the move, Shurer stopped to treat a wounded teammate’s neck injury caused by shrapnel from a recent RPG blast.
Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer II.
After providing aid, Shurer spent the next hour fighting across several hundred meters and killing multiple insurgents. Eventually, Shurer arrived to support the pinned down element and immediately rendered aid to four critically wounded U.S. units and 10 injured commandos until teammates arrived.
Soon after their arrival, Shurer and his team sergeant were shot at the same time. The medic ran 15 meters through a barrage of gunfire to help his sergeant. Despite a bullet hitting his helmet and a gunshot wound to his arm, Shurer pulled his teammate to cover and rendered care.
Medal of Honor.
(US Army photo.)
Moments later, Shurer moved back through heavy gunfire to help sustain another teammate that suffered a traumatic amputation to his right leg.
For the next several hours, Shurer helped keep the large insurgent force at bay while simultaneously providing care to his wounded teammates. Shurer’s actions helped save the lives of all wounded casualties under his care.
Shurer also helped evacuate three critically wounded, non-ambulatory, teammates down a near-vertical 60-foot cliff, all while avoiding rounds of enemy gunfire and falling debris caused by numerous air strikes.
Further, Shurer found a run of nylon webbing and used it to lower casualties while he physically shielded them from falling debris.
Shurer’s Medal of Honor was upgraded from a Silver Star upon review.
Defense Department officials detected and tracked multiple missile launches out of North Korea Monday, four of which landed in the Sea of Japan, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters this morning.
Davis said the four medium-range ballistic missiles were launched from the northwest corner of North Korea, traveled over the Korean Peninsula and out into the sea, totaling about 1,000 kilometers in distance, or more than 620 miles.
The missiles landed in the vicinity of Akita Prefecture off the coast of Japan near that nation’s exclusive economic zone, he said. The EEZ is defined as a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind.
“The North American Aerospace Defense Command detected that the missiles from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” Davis said. “This [North Korean missile launch] is very similar in terms of the path and the distance of the three missiles that flew into Japan’s EEZ in September 2016.”
He added, “These launches, which coincide with the start of our annual defensive exercise, Foal Eagle, with the Republic of Korea’s military, are consistent with North Korea’s long history of provocative behavior, often timed to military exercises that we do with our ally,”
The United States stands with its allies “in the face of this very serious threat and are taking steps to enhance our ability to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles, such as the deployment of a [Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense] battery to South Korea, which will happen as soon as feasible,” Davis said.
U.S. Strikes AQAP in Yemen
Also overnight, the United States made an airstrike on Yemen’s Abyan Governorate against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula fighters, bringing to 40 the strikes there in the past five nights, Davis said.
Since the first airstrike against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen on Feb. 28, “We will continue to target [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] militants and facilities to disrupt the organization’s plot and protect American lives,” the captain said.
The strikes have been coordinated with and done in full partnership with the government of Yemen with the goal of denying al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists’ freedom of movement within traditional safe havens, Davis emphasized.
The captain also confirmed the deaths of three al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operatives in March 2 and 3 airstrikes in Yemen.
Usayd al Adani, whom Davis described as a longtime al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula explosives expert and facilitator who served as the organization’s emir, was killed in a U.S. airstrike March 2 within the Abyan Governorate. Killed with him was former Naval Air Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee Yasir al Silmi.
Killed March 3 was al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula fighter and communications intermediary for Adani, Harithah al Waqri, Davis said.
“[Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct and inspire terror attacks against the United States and our allies,” he said. “And we will continue to work with the government of Yemen to defeat [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula].