The Army is working on a future Bradley Fighting Vehicle variant possibly armed with lasers, counter-drone missiles, active protection systems, vastly improved targeting sights and increased on-board power to accommodate next-generation weapons and technologies.
Also designed to be lighter weight, more mobile and much better protected, the emerging Bradley A5 lethality upgrade is already underway – as the Army works vigorously to ensure it is fully prepared if it is called upon to engage in major mechanized, force-on-force land war against a technically advanced near-peer rival.
As the Army pursues a more advanced A5, engineered to succeed the current upgraded A4, it is integrating 3rd Generation Forward Looking Infrared sensors for Commanders and Gunners sights, spot trackers for dismounted soldiers to identify targets and an upgraded chassis with increased underbelly protections and a new ammunition storage configuration, Col. James, Schirmer Project Manager Armored Fighting Vehicles, said earlier this Fall at AUSA. (Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium).
BAE Systems, maker of the Bradley, told Warrior the platform’s modernization effort is designed in three specific stages. The first stage in the modernization process was the Bradley Track Suspension to address suspension upgrades, BAE statements said. The subsequent Bradley A4 Engineering Change Proposal, soon to enter production, improves mobility and increases electrical power generation. More on-board power can bring the technical means to greatly support advanced electronics, command and control systems, computing power, sensors, networks and even electronic warfare technologies.
Maj. Gen. David Bassett, former Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems, described the upgrades in terms of A3 and A4 focusing upon the Bradley from the turret ring down – leading the A5 effort to more heavily modernize Bradley systems from the turret up. This includes weapons sights, guns, optics, next-generation signals intelligence and even early iterations of artificial intelligence and increased computer automation.
During several previous interviews with Warrior, Bassett has explained that computer-enabled autonomous drones will likely be operated by nearby armored combat vehicles, using fast emerging iterations of artificial intelligence. These unmanned systems, operated by human crews performing command and control from nearby vehicles, could carry ammunition, conduct reconnaissance missions, test enemy defenses or even fire weapons – all while allowing manned crews to remain at a safer stand-off distance. At one point, Bassett told Warrior that, in the future, virtually all armored vehicles will have an ability to be tele-operated, if necessary.
Also, while Army Bradley developers did not specifically say they planned to arm Bradleys with laser weapons, such innovation is well within the realm of the possible. Working with industry, the Army has already shot down drone targets with Stryker-fired laser weapons, and the service currently has several laser weapons programs at various stages of development. This includes ground-fired Forward Operating Base protection laser weapons as well as vehicle-mounted lasers. A key focus for this effort, which involves a move to engineer a much stronger 100-kilowatt vehicle-fired laser, is heavily reliant upon an ability to integrate substantial amounts of mobile electrical power into armored vehicles.
Space, Weight and Power considerations, as Army developers describe it, are an indispensable element of the calculus information Bradley modernization; this means managing things like weight, mobility, ammunition storage space and electromagnetic signatures as they pertains to vehicle protection and firepower.
“If you emit a signal, you can be hit,” a senior Army weapons developer said.
Finding ways to lower vehicle weight, while simultaneously increasing protection and adding new systems such as Active Protection Systems technology, presents a particular challenge for developers. BAE has developed lighter-weight more mobile “band-tracks” for the Bradley as a way to help address this challenge, company and Army officials said.
Schirmer said equipping the Bradley with new suspension, reactive armor tiles and APS can increase the vehicle by as much as 3,000-pounds.
“We are working closely with the Army to understand the capability requirements they require, and develop solutions that address the current gaps and allow room for future growth,” Deepak Bazaz, vice president, Combat Vehicles programs, BAE Systems, told Warrior in a written statement.
As part of this strategic approach, BAE has already configured Bradleys with Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD) weaponry designed to attack enemy drones, low flying aircraft or even incoming missile attacks. The Army is already testing and developing Stryker-fired Hellfire missiles and other SHORAD weapons as a way to meet the near-term threat gap introduced by the rapid proliferation of enemy drones and possible air attacks upon armored vehicle formations. BAE has independently configured a Bradley with SHORAD weapons ability and is in the process of presenting it to the Army for consideration.
APS technology, now being accelerated for multiple Army combat vehicles, uses sensors and radar, computer processing, fire control technology and interceptors to find, target and knock down or intercept incoming enemy fire such as RPGs and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, or ATGMs. Systems of this kind have been in development for many years, however the rapid technological progress of enemy tank rounds, missiles and RPGs is leading the Army to more rapidly test and develop APS for its fleet of Bradleys.
The Army is now testing the Bradley with an Israeli-manufactured IMISystems’ Iron Fist APS, a technology which uses a multi-sensor early warning system with both infrared and radar sensors.
“Electro-optical jammers, Instantaneous smoke screens and, if necessary, an interceptor-based hard kill Active Protection System,” IMISystems officials state.
IRON FIST capability demonstrators underwent full end-to-end interception tests, against all threat types, operating on the move and in urban scenarios. These tests included both heavy and lightly armored vehicles.
“In these installations, IRON FIST proved highly effective, with its wide-angle protection, minimal weight penalty and modest integration requirements,” company officials said.
Merging APS SHORAD
As part of these ongoing efforts to develop enhanced ground combat lethality, such as the emerging Stryker-fired 30mm cannon along with SHORAD possibilities and APS vehicle weapons technology, Army program managers are beginning to consider the possibility of merging APS sensors and fire control with some of these larger vehicle-integrated weapons.
“There is not a specific program, but we are evaluating the technology to see if the sensors we use for active protection could be married with the lethality from a Stryker-fired 30mm air burst round,” Col. Glenn Dean, Project Manager, Stryker Brigade Combat Team, told Warrior in an interview during AUSA this past October.
In this conceivable scenario, APS could in theory vastly expand its target envelope beyond merely intercepting things like RPGs or ATGMs and function in a fast-moving counter drone or counter aircraft defensive capacity.
“In the future, we could use directed energy, traditional missiles or a direct-fire cannon to shoot out countermeasures,” Dean added.
Overall, despite the promise of increasingly innovative offensive and defensive weaponry for ground combat vehicles, service leaders often reflect upon the unpredictability and wide-ranging nature of enemy threats.
“There are rounds like sabo rounds which will go through reactive armor. There is no silver bullet when it comes to protection,” the senior Army weapons developer said.
Land War vs. Russian Chinese Armored Vehicles
The Army is accelerating these kinds of armored vehicle weapons systems and countermeasures, in part because of an unambiguous recognition that, whoever the US Army fights, it is quite likely to encounter Russian or Chinese-built armored vehicles and advanced weaponry.
As part of this equation, recognizing that Army warfighters are often understandably reluctant to articulate war plans or threat assessments, it is indeed reasonable and relevant to posit that service war planners are looking at the full-range of contingencies – to include ground war with North Korea, Russian forces in Europe, Iranian armies in the Middle East or even Chinese armored vehicles on the Asian continent.
Citing Russian-built T-72 and T-90 tanks, Army senior officials seem acutely aware that the US will likely confront near-peer armored vehicles, weapons systems and technologies.
“If the Army goes into ground combat in the Middle East, we will face equipment from Russia, Iran and in some cases China,” a senior Army official told Warrior. “The threat is not just combat vehicles but UAVs (drones), MANPADs and other weapons.”
Bradley upgrades are also serving as a component to early conceptual work on the Army’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, an entirely new platform or fleet of vehicles slated to emerge in the 2030s.
Bassett said the Army has set up cross-functional teams to explore early concepts for requirements for the new vehicles; although the service has not yet decided upon a particular chassis or vehicle, the Army is looking at Abrams, Bradley and Howitzer-type configurations as experimental platforms.
“We may want to use Bradleys as surrogate vehicles to try out some of the technologies available in the marketplace,” Schirmer said.
“We are leveraging new and emerging technology, with an eye towards commonality across many of the BAE Systems built vehicles in the formation, to provide superior capabilities for our troops,” Bazaz said.
Next Generation vehicles, for the 2030s and beyond, Army developers say, will be necessary because their are limits to how far an existing armored vehicle can be upgraded. This requires a delicate balancing act between the short term operational merits of upgrades vs. a longer-term, multi-year developmental approach. Each has its place, Army acquisition leaders emphasize.
The emergence of these weapons, and the fast-changing threat calculus is also, quite naturally, impacting what Army developers call CONOPS, or Concepts of Operations. Longer range sensors and weaponry, of course, can translate into a more dispersed combat area – thus underscoring the importance of command and control systems and weapons with sufficient reach to outrange attacking forces. The idea of bringing more lethality to the Bradley is not only based upon needing to directly destroy enemy targets but also fundamental to the importance of laying down suppressive fire, enabling forces to maneuver in combat.
As part of these preparations for future ground warfare, Army concept developers and war veterans are quick to point out that armored vehicles, such as a Bradley or even an Abrams tank, have also been impactful in certain counterinsurgency engagements as well. Accordingly, the term “full-spectrum” often receives much attention among Army leaders, given that the service prides itself on “expecting the unexpected” or being properly suited in the event of any combat circumstance. The Army has now evolved to a new Doctrinal “Operations” approach which places an even greater premium upon winning major power land wars.
“We need to be ready to face near-peers or regional actors with nuclear weapons. It is the risk of not being ready that is too great,” a senior Army official said.
A 74-year-old researcher at a Russian rocket and spacecraft design facility has reportedly been charged with treason for allegedly giving classified information to a NATO country.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on July 23, 2018, that Viktor Kudryavtsev of the Central Research Institute for Machine Building is accused of passing classified data on hypersonic technology to a representative of an unspecified alliance member.
Citing unnamed sources, Kommersant reported that Kudryavtsev is being held at the Lefortovo jail in Moscow and has pleaded not guilty.
Central Research Institute of Machine Building checkpoint.
A spokesman for Russian space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Ustimenko, said on July 22, 2018, that Kudryavtsev had been arrested but did not give any details.
A member of the Public Monitoring Commission NGO, Yevgeny Yenikeyev, said on July 22, 2018, that Kudryavtsev was placed in pretrial detention on high treason charge.
The case is one of several in recent years in which Russian citizens have been accused of treason or disseminating classified or sensitive information.
Featured image: Exterior view of Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.
Seventy-five years ago, the destroyer USS Roper sank the Nazi submarine U-85 with all hands going to a watery grave. This was not an unusual occurrence. During World War II the Nazis lost 629 U-boats to a number of hostile acts, from being depth-charged by ships to hitting mines to being bombed while pierside at a port.
But in 2003, U-85 briefly hit the news when its Enigma machine was “retrieved” by some divers. Eventually the Naval Historical Center managed to arrange the machine’s donation to a North Carolina museum, but it highlighted a problem. The Navy also got a public-relations black eye over a recovered Brewster F3A. The Navy didn’t like having to hand over the plane – even if it was a Corsair In Name Only.
As part of the 2004 defense authorization bill signed by then-President George W. Bush the “Sunken Military Craft Act” became the law of the land. The rules are intended to ensure that sunken wrecks of American military vessels (or aircraft) aren’t tampered with.
The law does that by setting up very steep civil penalties — we’re talking a $100,000 for each violation. What is a violation? Well, according to the text available at the website of the Naval History and Heritage Command, engaging or attempting to engage in, “any activity directed at a sunken military craft that disturbs, removes, or injures any sunken military craft.”
Oh, and they consider each day a separate violation – those penalties will be adding up. Furthermore, the provisions also state that “vessel used to violate this title shall be liable in rem for a penalty under this section for such violation.”
Or in other words, your boat is subject to confiscation.
And if you think you’re gonna be safe by looting something like U-85… think again. Any foreign government can ask the Navy to protect their wrecks off our shores. So, looting a foreign warship wreck can get you in just as much hot water as if you’d looted one from the United States Navy.
All is not lost for would-be looters. According to the law, there is an eight-year statute of limitations. But given that you face huge civil penalties, it’s better to ask permission. Or better yet, leave the wreck alone.
The PCU Sioux City will be commissioned on November 17, 2018.
(U.S. Navy Stan Bailey)
The Sioux City is a Freedom variant of the LCS, and it carries a 57mm gun, Rolling Airframe Missiles, .50-cal. machine guns, and the ALEX decoy system by default. The Sioux City also has a Mk. 50 torpedo, a lightweight torpedo that’s great for hitting fast-moving and deep-diving submarines.
The 57mm Bofors gun can fire airburst or conventional rounds at up to 4 rounds per second, shredding small boats or attackers on shore. The RAM allows the ship to engage anti-ship missiles, aircraft, and surface vessels and can even track and engage multiple targets at once. And the ALEX decoy allows the ship to create a massive radar signature to spoof missiles heading at the LCS or a fleet that it’s supporting.
One of its best core assets is the new radar, which can keep track of 1,000 contacts at once.
The Future littoral combat ship USS Sioux City transits the Thames River as it arrives at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, Nov. 9, 2018.
(U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Hoskins)
The surface warfare module adds an MH-60R helicopter equipped with Hellfire missiles, a Firescout drone helicopter that can be equipped with guided rockets, and a pack of 24 Longbow Hellfire missiles that can be launched in rapid succession if necessary. This allows the LCS to slaughter swarm attacks as well as threaten ships and troops operating near the shore. The ship carries rigid-hull inflatable boats in this configuration which it can launch and recover from its stern ramp.
When the ship is equipped for anti-submarine warfare, it brings an MH-60S and the Firescout, but it pads those out with an active sonar, a towed sensor array, and a decoy system that fools incoming torpedoes. The Sioux City even brings a NETFIRES Precision Attack Munition with it in this configuration, allowing it to punch through armored targets up to 25 miles away.
The Future littoral combat ship USS Sioux City pulls alongside the pier at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, Nov. 9, 2018.
(U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Hoskins)
When working against mines, the MH-60S and Firescout stay, but the ship brings airborne mine detection and neutralization systems, additional sensors for scanning the coastal areas, and multiple drones, including the Knifefish underwater drone.
The ships can reach speeds up to 50 knots, but it tops out at 45 knots in sea state 3. Going that fast drains fuel, though; its maximum range at 50 knots is 1,500 nautical miles. If it slows to 20 knots, it can travel 4,300 nautical miles.
The Sioux City will be the fifth of the Freedom-class LCSs, and the Navy already has 11 Independence-class littoral combat ships.
The future USS Sioux City is launched into the Menominee River seconds after ship sponsor Mary Winnefeld, wife of retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, christened the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship.
The LCS add a lot of capability to the fleet in small packages and with small crews — the Sioux City can be fully manned with 75 sailors, and it can do most of its core missions with only 15 to 50 sailors — but they have been critiqued for their high cost and limited survivability systems.
The LCS program has been rife with cost overruns, the ships have needed excessive maintenance, and they’re fragile for combat. They are highly susceptible to damage with little protection for critical ship systems and limited redundancy for propulsion, sensors, etc. This is obviously a problem for ships supposed to operate near enemy shores and mine layers.
Then-NASA astronaut candidate Jasmin Moghbeli poses for a portrait in the Johnson Space Center’s Systems Engineering Simulator, a real-time, crew-in-the-loop engineering simulator for advanced space flight programs. NASA/Bill Ingalls
An active-duty Marine is among the newest class of astronauts eligible for NASA missions to the moon and beyond.
Marine Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli said she became enamored with space as a child, with a series of experiences amplifying her interest as she got older.
“The first time I remember saying I wanted to become an astronaut was in sixth grade. We had to do a book report and I had chosen to do mine on Valentina Tereshkova — the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut. And it’s kind of stemmed from there. We had to dress up like the person in school for the day, so I made a little astronaut costume with my mom,” Moghbeli said.
By the time she reached high school, her parents had enrolled her in space camp and she witnessed a shuttle launch. The seed was planted from there.
Pictured (front row, left to right, Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Robb Kulin, Jessica Watkins, Loral O’Hara; back row, left to right, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, and Raja Chari. Image Credit: NASA.
Earlier this year, Moghbeli and 10 classmates completed two years of training to become the first class of astronauts to graduate under the Artemis program, making them eligible for assignments to the International Space Station, Artemis missions to the moon, and eventually, Mars, according to a NASA press release.
The New York-native was commissioned into the Marine Corps in 2005 after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering with Information Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, her sights were initially set on being a Naval aviator.
“I don’t think I knew what the Marine Corps was, to be entirely honest. My parents came from Iran and my grandfather was an admiral in the Iranian navy, and so he told me lots of cool stories when I was younger. So, I initially was looking into going into the Navy and becoming a Naval aviator that way,” she said.
During a summer seminar program for the Naval Academy Moghbeli learned about the Marines and by her junior year of college she connected with a recruiter who told her she could get a guaranteed air contract.
Throughout her time as a Marine pilot, Moghbeli completed 150 combat missions and 2,000 hours of flight time in more than 25 different aircraft. At the time of her selection for the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class, she was testing H-1 helicopters at MCAS Yuma, Arizona.
Marine Corps Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, a pilot assigned to Marine Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, conducts her final flight in an AH-1 “Cobra” at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, in 2017. Photo by Lance Cpl. Christian Cachola.
Moghbeli said many crossovers between the culture of the Marines and that of NASA prepared her for success in the program.
“I think the Marine Corps set me up very well for training here and for the job we have to do here. The teamwork and camaraderie — teamwork is obviously a big part of what we do here at NASA — and especially when you talk about being on a crew of a handful of people for months, potentially years at a time. I think we learn a lot of good teamwork skills in the Marine Corps,” she said. “My operational background from being a test pilot, being a Cobra pilot have been huge. Even while I was on the initial training, I was able to contribute to evaluating the displays on the Orion capsule and new things on the different vehicles, because of that background.”
Moghbeli added the public speaking required during frequent flight briefs quelled her stage fright and “learning the space station systems was not that different from learning aircraft systems.”
There are currently 17 active-duty astronauts working for NASA, according to Jennifer Hernandez, a NASA communications specialist. For service members interested in pursuing a similar path to Moghbeli, she offers the following advice:
“Achieving anything that is challenging, and most Marines probably know this but, there’s going to be stumbles and failures along the way, and I’ve had plenty in my path here. If you talk to my first onwing [instructor] in flight school, he’s shocked I even made it to my solo. … But always getting back up, finding those mentors … finding people that will help you when you are struggling, and then also something I think it is very important … to surround yourself with people who are going to challenge you and push,” she said.
Army Pfc. Craig H. Middleton was the Mk. 19 gunner on his convoy when it came under an insurgent ambush in Afghanistan. But despite his grievous wounds, Middleton was able to beat back the ambush and help save the lives of two wounded airmen — an action that earned him the Silver Star.
Middleton and his unit, Apache Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, were making their way through a dry riverbed bordered by steep hills in Afghanistan on Nov. 16, 2011, when a series of rocket-propelled grenades rained down from the hills on one side.
The first RPG impacted a scout truck, the second hit the truck behind Middleton, and the third flew through the back window of Middleton’s Mine-resistant, Ambush-protected, All-Terrain Vehicle and exploded inside it. Middleton was instantly peppered with shrapnel up and down his legs, but he was still doing better than the two Air Force joint terminal attack controllers in the back of the vehicle. Both of them had received shrapnel and blast damage to their upper bodies.
(Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Phillip Steiner)
The wounded and embattled gunner opened up with his Mk. 19, firing 40mm grenades where the rockets had come from as well as any muzzle flashes or fighters he could spot. Out of targets, Middleton dove into the back of the MATV and applied a tourniquet to one of the JTACs.
While he treated the first JTAC, another RPG hit the vehicle, so Middleton rushed back up to engage the enemy.
The Army platoon inflicted an estimated 25 kills against the insurgents despite tough odds. As the fighters retreated, Middleton reassessed the casualties and spotted a severe groin bleed on the second JTAC which he treated with another tourniquet.
For his actions in Nangarhar Province that day, Middleton was awarded the Silver Star in a 2012 ceremony. Unfortunately, his wounds proved severe enough that he underwent a medical separation from the military. In an interview during that process, the cav scout told Army Staff Sgt. Elwyn Lovelace that he hoped to become a dentist and enjoy a nice, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work life.
Lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee recently released a draft of the fiscal 2021 defense spending bill that would set aside $1 million for the Army to fund the renaming of major installations named after Confederate leaders.
Calls for renaming Army posts such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Benning, Georgia, have gained momentum after a surge of protests against racism broke out across the country following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being taken into custody by Minneapolis police in late May.
Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in early June that he was open to consider renaming these installations but backed off the effort days later when President Donald Trump said his administration would not consider such a move.
McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon in late June that Defense Secretary Mark Esper has directed the services to look at Confederate symbols and other challenging issues involving race and “have deliberate conversations so we can make the best recommendations possible.”
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate, however, have taken steps to support removing symbols of systematic racism on military bases.
The House Appropriations Committee’s version of the fiscal 2021 defense spending bill would provide id=”listicle-2646370462″ million to the Army for the “renaming of installations, facilities, roads and streets that bear the name of Confederate leaders and officers since the Army has the preponderance of the entities to change.”
The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021 includes a provision that would require the secretary of defense to “establish a commission relating to assigning, modifying, or removing of names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia to assets of the Department of Defense that commemorate the Confederate States of America.”
The eight-member commission would include service members, as well as members of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
The provision authorizes million to be appropriated for the effort. If approved, the committee would have until October 2022 to brief Congress on a plan to include “collecting and incorporating local sensitivities associated with naming or renaming of assets of the Department of Defense,” according to the language.
A new study finds that consuming alcoholic beverages daily — even at low levels that meet U.S. guidelines for safe drinking — appears to be “detrimental” to health.
The researchers found that downing one to two drinks at least four days per week was linked to a 20 percent increase in the risk of premature death, compared with drinking three times a week or less. The finding was consistent across the group of more than 400,000 people studied. They ranged in age from 18 to 85, and many were veterans.
Dr. Sarah Hartz, a psychiatrist at the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, led the study. It appeared in November 2018 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical Experimental Research. She’s not too surprised by the findings, noting that two large international studies published this year reached similar conclusions.
“There has been mounting evidence that finds light drinking isn’t good for your health,” says Hartz, who is also an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
(Photo by Alan Levine)
Study considered a range of demographic factors
The study results don’t necessarily prove cause and effect. People who tend to drink more may indeed end up having shorter lives — but not necessarily because of more alcohol consumption. It could be, for example, that those people have harder lives all around, with more stress, which takes a toll on health and longevity. But the researchers did control for a range of demographic factors and health diagnoses to try to tease out the direct effects of alcohol.
Another limitation of the study is that it relied on in-person self-reports of alcohol use. Researchers believe this method may lead to under-reporting, compared with anonymous surveys.
But relative to some past studies that found health benefits from light-to-moderate drinking, the new study looked at a much larger population. This allowed Hartz’s team to better distinguish between groups of drinkers, in terms of quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.
“We’re seeing things that we didn’t before because we have access to such large data sets,” she says. “In the past, we couldn’t distinguish between these drinking amounts. The larger the data set, the more statistical power you have and the easier it is to make conclusions.”
(Photo by Heather Hammond)
94,000 VA outpatient records part of study
The researchers reviewed two data sets of self-reported alcohol use and mortality follow-up. One set included more than 340,000 people from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). The other contained nearly 94,000 VA outpatient medical records. Health and survival were tracked between seven and 10 years.
According to the findings, people who drank four or more times a week, even when limiting it to only a drink or two, had about a 20 percent greater risk of dying during the study period.
As part of the study, Hartz and her team specifically evaluated deaths due to heart disease and cancer. For heart disease, they found a benefit to drinking, specifically that one to two drinks per day about four days a week seemed to protect against death from heart disease. But drinking every day eliminated those benefits. In terms of death from cancer, any drinking was “detrimental,” she says.
Current CDC guidelines call for alcohol to be used “in moderation — up to two drinks a day for men and up to one drink a day for women.” The guidelines don’t recommend that people who do not drink should start doing so for any reason.
It was a cool night for Havana, with the temperature falling into the mid-70s, and the diplomat and his family were feeling very good about their assignment to Cuba. They were still settling into their new home, a comfortable, Spanish-style house in the lush enclave that had been called “el Country Club” before wealthy families abandoned it in the early years of the revolution. “We were just thrilled to be there,” the diplomat recalled. “The music, the rum, the cigars, the people — and a very important moment for diplomacy.”
Eight months earlier, in March 2016, President Barack Obama had swept into town to commemorate the two countries’ historic rapprochement, vowing to bury “the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” Now, weeks after the election of Donald Trump, that entente was suddenly doubtful. Fidel Castro had just died, opening a new chapter in the Cuban saga. The diplomat could hardly have imagined a more fascinating time to arrive.
As the sun slid into the Florida Straits on that late-November evening, the diplomat folded back the living room doors that opened onto the family’s new tropical garden. The warm night air poured in, along with an almost overpowering din. “It was annoying to the point where you had to go in the house and close all the windows and doors and turn up the TV,” he recalled. “But I never particularly worried about it. I figured, ‘I’m in a strange country, and the insects here make loud noises.'”
A few nights later, the diplomat and his wife invited over the family of another American embassy official who lived next door. Around dusk, as they chatted on the patio, the same deafening sound rose from their yard again.
“I’m pretty sure those are cicadas,” the first diplomat said.
“Those are not cicadas,” his neighbor insisted. “Cicadas don’t sound like that. It’s too mechanical-sounding.”
The colleague had been hearing the same noises at home, sometimes for an hour or more at a stretch. After he complained to the embassy housing office, a couple of Cuban maintenance workers were dispatched to look around. They checked for electrical problems and scanned the yard for strange insects, but they left without finding anything out of place. In February, the nightly racket finally began to fade. Then it went away altogether.
It was not until a Friday in late March that the diplomat realized he might be facing something more dangerous than bugs. At work that day, an embassy colleague with whom he was friendly took him aside and said he was leaving Cuba right away. A fit-looking man in his thirties, the colleague said he had just been in Miami, where medical specialists found he had a series of problems including a serious hearing loss. In late December, he said, he had been struck by a strange, disturbing phenomenon — a powerful beam of high-pitched sound that seemed to be pointed right at him. The following Monday, the diplomat’s friend played him a recording of the noise: It sounded a lot like what the diplomat had heard in his backyard.
The diplomat, who agreed to discuss his experience on the condition he not be named, said neither he nor his wife had felt any signs of illness or injury. But within days, they, too, would be on their way to Miami to be examined by medical specialists. Along with 22 other Americans and eight Canadians, they would be diagnosed with a wide array of concussion-like symptoms, ranging from headaches and nausea to hearing loss. They would also find themselves caught up in an extraordinary international dispute, one that the Trump administration would use to sharply reverse the course of U.S. relations with Cuba.
Even in a realm where secrets abound, the Havana incidents are a remarkable mystery. After nearly a year of investigation that has drawn on intelligence, defense and technology expertise from across the U.S. government, the FBI has been unable to determine who might have attacked the diplomats or how. Nor has the bureau ruled out the possibility that at least some of the Americans weren’t attacked at all. Officials who have been briefed on the inquiry described it as having made strikingly little progress in answering the basic questions of the case, with frustrated FBI agents reporting that they are running out of rocks to overturn.
Those frustrations have roiled the U.S. national-security community, putting the FBI increasingly at odds with the CIA over the case. In early January, after more than eight months of analysis, the bureau ruled out its initial hypothesis that the Americans were targeted with some type of sonic device. That left the FBI without a weapon, a perpetrator or a motive, and still struggling to understand how the diplomats could have been hurt or fallen ill. Intelligence officials, for their part, have continued to emphasize a pattern they see as anything but coincidental: The first four Americans to report being struck by the phenomenon — including the fit-looking man in his 30s — were all CIA officers working under diplomatic cover, as were two others affected later on. The CIA and other agencies involved in the investigation also have yet to concur with the FBI’s conclusion about sonic technology.
More broadly, the Cuba problem has raised questions within the national security community about how the Trump administration is using intelligence information to guide its foreign policy. At a time when the White House has vowed to act more forcefully against North Korea, Iran and other threats, some officials see the Cuba problem as yet another lesson in the dangers of using intelligence selectively to advance policy goals. “Trump came in opposing better relations with Cuba,” said one national security official who, like others, would discuss the case only on the condition he not be named. “The administration got out in front of the evidence and intelligence.”
A ProPublica investigation of the case, based on interviews with more than three dozen U.S. and foreign officials and an examination of confidential government documents, represents the first detailed public account of how the Cuba incidents unfolded. Although the State Department has generally emphasized similarities in the medical files of the 24 affected Americans, officials and documents consulted for this story indicated that the nature and seriousness of the patients’ symptoms varied rather widely. The experiences that precipitated their illnesses were also quite different, officials said, and the experiences and symptoms of the eight Canadians differed from those of the Americans.
Many U.S. officials who have dealt closely with the problem — including several who asserted that it has been distorted for political purposes — said they remain convinced that at least some of the Americans were deliberately targeted by a sophisticated enemy. Medical specialists who reviewed the patients’ files last summer concluded that while their symptoms could have many causes, they were “most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source,” the State Department medical director, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, said. “No cause has been ruled out,” he added. “But the findings suggest this was not an episode of mass hysteria.”
Yet it appears that secrecy, psychology and politics may all have played some part in how the phenomenon spread through the staffs of the two Havana embassies. Administration officials have been reluctant to discuss psychological factors in the case, in part because they fear offending or antagonizing the stricken diplomats (many of whom already feel badly treated by the State Department leadership). But as the mystery has deepened, U.S. investigators have begun to look more closely at the insular, high-pressure world of the Havana embassy, and they have found a picture that is far more complex than the rhetoric and headlines have suggested.
Despite the many unanswered questions, Trump administration officials have repeatedly blamed Raúl Castro’s government for failing to protect the diplomats, if not actually attacking them. Early last fall, the State Department withdrew more than half of the diplomatic staff assigned to Havana, while ordering a proportional number of Cubans to leave Washington. The department also warned U.S. citizens they could be “at risk” of attack if they visit the island. “I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government, can bring this to an end,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said January 2018.
Such assertions have outraged the Cuban leadership. Since early last year, U.S. officials said, Castro and his senior aides have insisted they had nothing to do with the incidents and would help in any way they could to investigate and stop them. The FBI team has found no evidence of Cuban complicity in the incidents, officials said, and has privately emphasized the government’s cooperation with its investigators. Tillerson’s statements notwithstanding, some State Department officials have also told members of Congress privately that they have assessed the Cubans’ denials of involvement to be credible, officials said. “They believe the Cuban government wants better relations with the United States,” one Senate aide said.
The other obvious suspect has been Russia, which intelligence analysts have seen as having both a possible motive and the possible means to carry out such attacks. The Putin government has harassed U.S. diplomats routinely in Moscow and sometimes abroad; during the Obama administration, it appeared determined to disrupt American foreign policy around the world. Russia also has a capacity to engineer sophisticated new weapons and a longstanding security alliance with Cuba. But investigators have not found even significant circumstantial evidence of a Russian hand in the incidents, officials said, and some analysts doubt Russia would imperil its relationship with Cuba by so brazenly undermining one of its key foreign policy goals.
While the mystery continues, U.S. policy toward Cuba hangs in the balance. With Castro scheduled to step down from the presidency in April, Washington is represented in Havana by only a skeleton staff at a potentially critical moment of transition. American travel to and business with the island have fallen sharply in recent months, and the processing of visas for Cubans wanting to emigrate to the United States has plunged, calling into question the fulfillment of a longstanding migration agreement between the two countries. The Trump administration may also have limited its options: On March 4, the State Department will face a deadline to either send its diplomats back to Havana or make permanent staff reductions. But the Secretary of State, who reportedly made the decision to pull out the diplomats, has shown no signs of changing his position.
“We don’t know how to protect people from this, so why would I do that?” Tillerson told the Associated Press when asked about returning diplomats to Cuba. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that until I’m convinced that I’m not putting people in harm’s way.”
In the crossfire of accusations, ordinary Cubans might be forgiven for wondering if they have been transported back in time. As the country prepares to be led for the first time in almost 60 years by someone not named Castro, a tectonic shift that could profoundly affect how it is governed, cold war rhetoric has again filled the air. The next-generation Communist leader who is expected to succeed Raúl Castro, Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, 56, is among those who have warned of yet another imperialist plot against Havana. They are “incredible fairy tales without any evidence,” he said of the Trump administration’s claims, “with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable conduct.”
The first two incidents occurred around Thanksgiving weekend of 2016, which coincided with the death of Fidel Castro on Nov. 25. During the nine days of official mourning that followed, neither American official told the embassy’s leadership what they had experienced. But both men, intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, would later say they heard sharp, disorienting sounds in their homes at night. At least one of them would later tell investigators the noise had seemed oddly focused, officials said. Moving out of the way or into another room, it seemed almost to disappear.
If the stories sounded like science fiction, the CIA’s Havana station and the embassy leadership suspected something more mundane. Since the United States and Cuba restored limited diplomatic relations in 1977, reopening their embassies as “interests sections” in each other’s capitals, the Cubans kept a constant, often aggressive watch over American diplomats in Havana. Diplomats might come home to find a window opened, or a television set turned on (often to government news), or their belongings slightly but obviously rearranged. Some part of the game — including more provocative actions like smearing dog feces on the handles of diplomats’ car doors — was considered almost routine. There was also some noted reciprocity from the American agents who trailed Cuban diplomats around Washington.
During periods of particular tension with Washington, the Cubans sometimes went further. In the early and mid-1990s, American diplomats who met with Cuban dissidents or otherwise annoyed the government occasionally returned from meetings to find their car tires punctured. In the mid-2000s, as the Bush administration openly pursued efforts to subvert the Castro regime, Cuban harassment of the 51 American diplomats then stationed on the island ranged from delays in the release of food shipments to “the poisoning of family pets,” the State Department’s inspector general wrote in a 2007 report.
The man who headed the American diplomatic mission in late 2016, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, knew that history of harassment well, officials said. A measured, laconic career diplomat with an air of hardened patience, DeLaurentis had taken over as the chargé d’affaires in the summer of 2014, bringing more Cuban experience than perhaps any other senior official in the U.S. government. He had done previous tours in Havana as both a consular officer and a political officer, with a stint in between managing Cuban affairs on the National Security Council staff. After Obama announced a plan to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, he nominated DeLaurentis to be Washington’s first ambassador to Havana since 1961, when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations. (Although his confirmation was blocked by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who argued that Cuba should demonstrate greater respect for human rights before the post was filled, DeLaurentis remained as the chargé d’affaires.)
Obama’s visit in March 2016 had left Cuban leaders ambivalent about the hand of friendship he extended: Fidel Castro, ailing and almost 90, stirred from his retirement to attack the American president’s “syrupy words,” and what he saw as an insidious plea for Cubans to forget the Americans’ dark history with the island. At a Communist Party congress that April, Raúl Castro and others peppered their rhetoric with references to “the enemy” to the north. Diplomats also noted some palpable discomfort among senior Cuban officials with the burst of capitalist bling that marked the easing of U.S. commercial restrictions — a Chanel fashion show, a free Rolling Stones concert, the brief takeover of Havana streets to film scenes for a new “Fast and Furious” movie.
Cuban President Raúl Castro (left) shakes hands with former US President Barack Obama, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the White House.)
But in the last months of 2016, official Cuban hostility toward the American diplomats in Havana was hovering somewhere near a 50-year low. No serious harassment had been reported for at least a few years, officials said. Most close analysts of Cuba believed the ruling party had forged a solid consensus for ending hostilities with the U.S. Fidel Castro’s last, angry diatribe notwithstanding, U.S. officials told ProPublica that he had been consulted on the rapprochement and given his approval.
While Cuban officials were notably slow to move forward with many of the proposed American business deals that poured in, they did plod ahead with work on bilateral agreements on law-enforcement cooperation, environmental protection, direct mail service and other matters. “Of course, there is a range of preferences within the regime on the speed and depth of reform,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former senior CIA analyst who handled Cuba issues on both the National Security Council staff and the National Intelligence Council. “But the debate is about the pace; there is no alternative to the Raúl strategy.”
The Cubans’ attention became more focused after the Nov. 8 presidential vote, American officials said. Although Trump had vowed during his campaign to renegotiate Obama’s “very weak agreement” with Havana, the Castro government had seemed to discount the possibility that he could be elected. Once Trump was elected — and with Obama administration officials urging the Cubans to consolidate improvements in the relationship — the Cuban government hurried to conclude work on pending agreements before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
It was during that same period between the election and the inauguration that the first U.S. intelligence officers were struck by what they described as strange noises. The initial three victims lived in the upscale neighborhoods of Havana’s western suburbs. Fidel Castro kept a home in one of those neighborhoods, Cubanacán, as do Vice President Díaz-Canel and other members of the island’s most-privileged elite. The elegant old mansions and tropical-suburban homes of the enclave are also favored by senior foreign diplomats and business executives. There is relatively little car or pedestrian traffic, and a considerable presence of private security guards as well as the Cuban police.
Although the first two officers would later report having first heard strange sounds in their homes back in late November, it was not until the end of December that the first victim sought help at the small medical clinic inside the embassy. That officer — the fit younger man in his 30s — came with a more serious complaint: He had developed headaches, hearing problems and a sharp pain in one ear, especially, following a strange experience in which something like a beam of sound seemed to have been directed at his home.
The younger man’s trauma was reported to DeLaurentis and the embassy’s diplomatic security chief, Anthony Spotti, on Dec. 30, State Department officials said, and followed by word that the two other CIA officers had experienced something similar about a month before. But inside the modernist glass-and-concrete chancery building that rises up along Havana’s iconic seawall, the Malecón, both the intelligence officials and senior diplomats guessed that the noises were “just another form of harassment” by the Cuban government, one official said. They also seemed carefully targeted to CIA officers working under diplomatic cover. If members of Cuba’s state-security apparatus did not know the men were intelligence officers, they would probably have suspected them anyway, the Americans believed.
The incidents were discussed discreetly among members of the embassy’s “country team,” the group of roughly 15 senior diplomats that would often meet daily to discuss significant issues. But, because of counterintelligence concerns, they were kept secret from most of the other American personnel — about 32 other diplomats and eight Marine guards — a decision that was later criticized by some of those who became sick. “We have security officers at every embassy and they give us constant updates,” one diplomat said. “Somebody gets pick-pocketed, somebody got their car broken into … And then somebody got attacked by this mystery weapon and they didn’t tell us?”
By mid-January, after the other two intelligence officers also sought medical attention at the embassy, the matter began to take on a more ominous cast, several officials said. Around the time that the first intelligence officers were sent to the U.S. for treatment on Feb. 6, the wife of another embassy staffer, who lived near the Havana coastline in the neighborhood of Flores, reported hearing similar, disturbing sounds, two officials familiar with her account said. The woman then looked outside and saw a van speeding away. The vehicle had apparently come from the same end of the street on which there was a house that was thought by U.S. officials to be used by the Cuban Interior Ministry. The officials acknowledged that the report was vague and uncertain. Yet they said it also constituted one of the more significant pieces of circumstantial information they had about the incidents.
In Havana, officials said, senior members of the embassy staff argued to their counterparts in Washington that they should formally protest the incidents to the Cuban government. Given the uncertainties, others thought they should try to gather more information before lodging such a complaint. Although it was a matter of concern at both the State Department and the CIA, it is unclear whether it was raised to the National Security Council staff before the decision to protest was made (one former senior official said it was not). Nor, officials said, was Secretary of State Tillerson informed of the situation until days after the department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Francisco Palmieri, finally called in the Cuban ambassador in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, to present a diplomatic note of protest on Feb. 17.
The Cuban government responded promptly. A few days later, officials said, DeLaurentis was called to a meeting with Josefina Vidal, the senior diplomat who had led the Cuban team that negotiated the normalization of relations with the U.S. (DeLaurentis declined to comment, referring questions about the Havana incidents to the State Department.) Vidal was joined by other officials from the Interior Ministry, which controls the country’s foreign-intelligence and internal-security apparatus. The Cuban security officials questioned DeLaurentis about the incidents, what the diplomats had experienced, what symptoms they had suffered and what other circumstances might shed light on the episode, officials said.
On Feb. 23, less than a week after the U.S. démarche to the Cuban government, DeLaurentis accompanied two visiting U.S. senators, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, to see President Raúl Castro at the Palace of the Revolution. During the conversation, officials said, Castro mentioned that he had something to discuss with the chargé, and when the meeting concluded, he asked DeLaurentis to stay behind. During what officials described as a fairly brief but substantive conversation, Castro made it clear that he was well aware of the incidents and understood that the Americans saw them as a serious problem. His response, one State Department official said, was “We should work together to try to solve it.”
The Americans’ meetings with Cuban diplomatic and security officials continued. The Cubans said they would bolster security around the homes of American diplomats, adding police patrols and installing closed-circuit television cameras in some areas. In a more unusual step, the Cubans also allowed a team of FBI investigators to come to Havana to investigate for themselves, building on improvements in the law-enforcement relationship that were formalized with a bilateral agreement in late 2016. (An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau would not comment on details of the investigation.)
From the start, U.S. officials were themselves reluctant to share information with Havana about the incidents. The Cubans asked to interview the Americans identified as victims; the State Department refused. The Cubans asked for detailed medical information about their injuries; the State Department demurred, citing privacy concerns. “You could not rule out” the Cuban government’s possible involvement in the incidents, one department official said. “When you are dealing with a possible perpetrator, one is careful.”
While the first embassy staff members were sent to be evaluated by specialists at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, officials in Washington also began to look more widely at what might be causing their symptoms. Initially, U.S. intelligence officials hypothesized that either the Cuban government or some other foreign regime — possibly with Cuban participation — had created a new kind of Long-range Acoustic Device, or L-Rad, enabling them to somehow focus and direct powerful sonic waves of the sort that are used by police agencies to disperse crowds, or by cargo ships to drive away pirates.
But the physics were puzzling to experts inside and outside of government. The incidents had mostly taken place at night, inside victims’ homes. Whatever sonic or directed-energy weapon was used seemed to have penetrated walls and windows. Yet others living in the immediate vicinity apparently heard nothing out of the ordinary. With known L-Rad technology, sound waves generally radiate out from the device. No one seemed to understand how it could be focused in an almost laser-like fashion and still penetrate hard surfaces.
After a lull of several weeks, the incidents began again — and there were more of them. One woman was struck in her apartment. Other diplomats were hit in their homes in the western suburbs. The differing circumstances only complicated the picture, but the effects of the phenomenon became clearer: The first patients examined in the U.S. were all found to have concrete medical symptoms, and in the case of the younger man, they were fairly serious.
On Friday, March 24, the diplomat who had first heard the noises in his backyard around Thanksgiving encountered the younger man at work and heard about his frightening diagnosis in Miami. Doctors said the man had serious damage to the small bones inside one of his ears, among other issues, and would need to wear a hearing aid. The next Monday, he played the diplomat a recording of the noise with which he had been targeted. The diplomat was stunned: It sounded much like the noises that he and his family had heard from their garden for several months.
A day later, the diplomat went to see DeLaurentis in the spacious, fifth floor ambassadorial suite that looks out over the Malecón, officials familiar with the episode said. The diplomat explained that he, too, had been exposed to strange sounds that seemed similar to what the younger man had experienced. DeLaurentis said he and others who knew about the incidents believed they were confined to a “small universe of people” whom the Cubans probably suspected of doing intelligence work, whether they were CIA officers or not. The diplomat wasn’t reassured, and he suggested that others would not be, either. “You need to call a meeting,” the diplomat told DeLaurentis. “The rumor mill is going mad.'”
The next day, March 29, DeLaurentis gathered about four dozen members of the embassy’s American staff — everyone in the building who had a security clearance. This time, after surrendering their cell phones, they crowded into a windowless conference room that had been outfitted as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF (pronounced “skiff.”) It had already been more than a month since DeLaurentis delivered his formal complaint to the Cuban government, but most of the people in the room were hearing about the incidents for the first time.
According to three officials who attended the meeting, DeLaurentis calmly laid out the basic details of what some of the diplomats had experienced. There was much they still did not understand about what had happened and who might be behind it, he said, but investigations were underway, and the Cuban authorities were taking steps they had promised to increase the diplomats’ security. He encouraged anyone who thought they might have been exposed, or who had any information that could be relevant to contact him or speak with the embassy’s security officer. Medical specialists were available to examine anyone who showed signs of a problem.
If DeLaurentis was hoping to calm his troops, he appears to have been only modestly successful. Part of the problem, diplomats said, was that he concluded the meeting by asking the assembled staff to avoid talking about the situation outside the secure confines of the embassy, even with their families. Although the matter was still classified, that request struck at least some of them as unreasonable, even outrageous. “We thought that was nuts,” said one official who attended the meeting. “There were family members who were attacked at home. How could we not tell them to watch out for this?”
Concerns among the staff and their dependents about their health exploded. Within barely a month, diplomats reported a flurry of new incidents. By the end of April, more than 80 diplomats, family members and other personnel — a very high proportion for a mission that included about 55 American staff — had asked to be checked out by the Miami medical team. That group was led by an ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, who has worked extensively with military veterans who suffered vestibular trauma from explosions and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Based on examinations in both Miami and Havana, it quickly identified almost a dozen new cases — nearly half the number that would eventually be confirmed.
The affected diplomats experienced a wide range of sensations: Some heard sharp, piercing noises or a cicada-like buzz. Others felt concentrated “beams” of sound or auditory vibrations like those from the half-open window of a fast-moving car. Still others heard no sound at all. According to a one-page summary of the cases that was jointly prepared for the Cuban government by the State Department’s bureaus of Medical Services and Western Hemisphere affairs, “Some voiced feeling shocked or shaken by the exposure, or awoken (sic) from sleep, and others described a more gradual onset of symptoms that continued for days to weeks afterwards.”
Amid the fear that gripped many, some embassy staff came forward saying they might have heard or felt similar phenomena, but were found after being interviewed not to require medical attention. Among the first 20 people examined by specialists in Havana and Miami, nine were found to have no discernable symptoms, while nine others had “moderate” effects like headaches, nausea, tinnitus and dizziness. Only two had what were termed “the most severe” effects, including the younger man who reported the first symptoms in late December.
After another lull of a few weeks, a disturbing new incident occurred in late April at the Hotel Capri, a 19-story landmark that was once a favorite of various Mafia dons and the actor Errol Flynn. Now run by a Spanish firm, the hotel was one of several used by the U.S. Embassy to put up diplomats and official visitors. Around April 21, an embassy staffer who was staying there during renovations on his apartment was shaken at night by a piercing noise in his room. A day or two later, an American doctor who had just flown in with the University of Miami team experienced a similar phenomenon. Both men had rooms with relatively large windows, an official said, yet other guests apparently nearby heard nothing.
This time, the embassy responded to the Cubans more vehemently. The diplomats who had been affected earlier had been living in their homes for some time. But the two new Americans who reported being struck were in hotel rooms that were presumably known only to a small number of U.S. and Cuban officials, and the hotel staff. The doctor had just arrived on the island a day or two earlier. “Who knew that he was there?” DeLaurentis demanded of the Cuban foreign ministry, according to one official familiar with the exchange. “The U.S. government. And the Cuban government.”
Within the Trump administration, anger over the incidents grew. On May 20, Cuba’s independence day, the president issued a statement warning that “cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans.” Three days later, the State Department expelled two Cuban diplomats in Washington who had been identified by the U.S. as spies. The expulsions were not made public, and no word of the acoustic mystery in Havana leaked to the news media. Yet even as diplomats and law-enforcement officials from the two countries continued to collaborate on the investigation in a limited, low-key way, the relationship veered back toward confrontation.
The Trump administration was by then finalizing plans to undo Obama’s rapprochement. Exactly what it would roll back to was uncertain; Trump suggested that the Cubans had gotten off easy on human rights, but he offered no particular rebuttal to the argument made by State Department officials and others in the government that greater engagement with Cuba was the most effective way to promote economic and eventually political liberalization there. Some American business groups and more moderate Cuban-American political groups also pushed for continued engagement. But in a new administration that had not filled senior Latin America posts at the State Department or on the NSC staff, many officials said there was a vacuum of policy leadership on the issue.
That vacuum was filled above all by the former campaign rival whom Trump had disparaged as “Little Marco.” Starting soon after the administration’s first closed-door intelligence briefing to Congress on the Havana incidents, Rubio pushed for a tougher response, officials said, and also advocated a series of hardline proposals to the broader Cuba policy. The White House “asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Senator Rubio told McClatchy newspapers. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”
On June 16, Trump traveled to Miami to announce he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” Although the changes fell short of that, Trump ordered government agencies to revise regulations on travel and business to prohibit any transactions with hotels, restaurants, stores and other companies tied to the large tourism and business operations of the Cuban military. Americans other than Cuban-Americans would not be allowed to travel on their own for general tourism purposes, but only with organized educational and other groups on pre-set itineraries. Any further improvements in the bilateral relationship, Trump said, would be contingent on human rights improvements in Cuba. “Now that I am president,” Trump promised, “we will expose the crimes of the Castro regime!”
In Havana, the diplomat who had first heard the noises in his garden was sent off to Miami in early April for medical testing with a cluster of other embassy personnel. He and his wife would return only to pack their things. Before leaving Cuba, though, he stopped to say goodbye at the home of one of his Canadian neighbors and tell him a bit about why they had to leave. The Canadian diplomat was worried: His family had been hearing similar sounds, he said. Could they have caused a mysterious nosebleed his son had suffered? Or headaches his wife had had?
In late April, DeLaurentis had invited over a small group of ambassadors from countries closely allied with the U.S. — Canada, Britain, France and others — to let them know what had been happening to his staff and ask if anyone else had experienced something similar. Other than one report from a French diplomat that was quickly discounted, the only significant response came from the embassy of Canada. In early May, the Canadian ambassador, Patrick Parisot, gathered the 18 diplomats on his staff to relay the Americans’ warning and ask if anyone had heard strange noises or suffered unusual illness. Several people reported back, a Canadian official said, including one (apparently the American diplomat’s neighbor) who said he had heard strange noises in his garden back in March.
As at the American embassy, fears about what was happening spread quickly through the Canadian staff. In all, 27 Canadian diplomats, spouses and children, representing 10 of the embassy’s families, sought medical attention. Of those, eight people from five families — including two children — would be diagnosed with symptoms that were milder than those of almost all the American patients: nosebleeds, dizziness, headaches and insomnia. All would recover fairly quickly.
In general, a Canadian official involved with the case said, the experience that triggered the Canadian diplomats’ symptoms was quite different from those reported by the Americans. In addition to the Canadian diplomat who said he had heard noises in his garden, members of another diplomatic family reported one day in June that they had heard a sudden, twanging sound, like a piece of sheet metal being waved; one family member later became ill. But the other six Canadians who were sickened did not hear or experience anything similar.
“In most cases, there weren’t really attacks that we could point to,” the Canadian official said. “The American experience was all about acoustic events and people feeling ill, and we had people feeling ill with limited connections to acoustic events.”
The Canadian foreign ministry also managed the issue very differently from the Americans, avoiding any criticism of the Cuban government. The ministry said it had no plans to reduce diplomatic staffing levels in Havana, and it quickly replaced the three embassy families that chose to return home because of the problem. The government also said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had received all the assistance it asked of the Cuban government. “The Cubans are pretty attached to the 1.2 million Canadian tourists who come to Cuba every year, so they’ve got a pretty strong incentive to nip this in the bud,” the official said. “They’ve been very proactive in trying to help us.”
However, the Canadian police have made virtually no real progress in their investigation, the official said, despite help from both the Cuban security forces and the FBI. After consulting with intelligence and technology experts, U.S. and Canadian security officials have recommended that diplomats and their families move away as quickly as possible from any unusual sound they might hear. The U.S. embassy also handed out high-frequency recorders so diplomats could record the noises, and relocated some of them from homes where the sounds or vibrations had been felt repeatedly.
The FBI investigative team, which has included members of a Miami-based unit that investigates crimes against U.S. citizens in Latin America, has visited Cuba four times since May. The group has interviewed diplomats and other officials of both countries, examined the homes and hotels where incidents took place, and conducted other inquiries. Their assessments have fed into elaborate matrices comparing the physical circumstances of the reported incidents with the sensations that the Americans described and the medical problems they later suffered. They also contributed to the still-secret report of the bureau’s Operational Technology Division on Jan. 4 that concluded that the Americans’ symptoms were not caused by some type of sonic device. (A State Department diplomatic security official, Todd Brown, said the investigators are still considering the possibility that sound was used to mask some other harmful agent or technology.)
The Havana investigation has also involved a wide range of U.S. scientific and technological agencies, including the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But officials said it is not clear that any of those have made significant progress, either. In addition to ultrasonic and infrasonic technologies, they have examined other directed-energy technologies. Some inquiry has also focused on the possible use of microwaves, harking back to the Moscow Signal, an episode from the 1970s in which Soviet intelligence beamed microwave signals into the U.S. embassy in Moscow to activate a passive receiver hidden in the office of the United States ambassador, officials said. Americans in the embassy were later reported to have been sickened by the phenomenon, but their symptoms did not closely resemble those suffered by diplomats in Cuba.
In interviews, former U.S. intelligence officers said they were also skeptical of the idea that the U.S. diplomats in Cuba might have been subjected to some new surveillance effort gone awry. Because the Cubans have always kept close tabs on American diplomats in Havana, they said, the security forces generally know they have little to fear from the recruitment or intelligence-gathering efforts of American spies stationed on the island. The intelligence experts also noted that the monitoring of diplomats at home is a labor-intensive task that would likely be reserved for the most important targets.
“In my experience, those operations at residences mean you end up sifting through a lot of trash,” said Charles S. (Sam) Faddis, a former senior CIA operations officer. “The product you get is filled with extraneous noise, daily life, every marital disagreement, the sounds of the TV, the kids, the dog. It seems like a lot of effort for that kind of target.”
Among the scientists whom the FBI team has sought out was Allen Sanborn, a biologist at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, who has spent 30 years studying cicada populations in Latin America and elsewhere. Dr. Sanborn said that while cicadas do make very loud noises, “it’s doubtful they could cause injury in Cuba because of the size and species.” He estimated that the Cuban cicada could reach a deafening 95 decibels at a distance of about 20 inches, but emphasized that the sound-pressure level would drop six decibels with every doubling distance. So, at 40 inches away, the sound intensity would fall to 89 decibels, and at 80 inches it would fall to 83 decibels, and so on. “It wouldn’t really hurt you unless it was shoved into your ear canal,” he said in an interview.
The four FBI agents who came to Dr. Sanborn’s home for the interview asked him a series of questions about insect calls in general and cicadas in particular. Then, they asked him to listen to about a dozen recordings made by American diplomats in Havana who had experienced what they thought at the time was some type of sonic attack. Some were shorter, some longer, Dr. Sanborn said, but all were about the same frequency and seemed to be the same sort of sound. He cautioned that the recordings were not of an extremely high quality, but he offered the agents his best judgement.
“The three possibilities are crickets, cicadas and katydids,” he said. “They sounded to me like cicadas.”
Dr. Sanborn said he gave the agents a couple of academic papers he has written that include analyses of the temporal patterns and spectral frequency of various cicada calls, but has not heard from them again.
Only the medical side of the investigation has produced somewhat more conclusive results. In early July, the State Department’s medical services bureau assembled a panel of neurological, otolaryngological and other experts to review the medical files of the Havana patients. The physicians allowed that at least some of what the diplomats had experienced could have come from other sources, including “viral illnesses, previous head trauma, aging, and even stress,” Dr. Rosenfarb said. But, he added, the experts’ consensus was that “the patterns of injuries that had so far been noted were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”
There had been no new attacks since April, although some of those affected only reported their symptoms weeks or months later. But then, around Aug. 21, two more incidents were reported, at least one of them at the Hotel Nacional, a fortress of 1930s luxury not far from the Capri. Shortly after doctors confirmed on Sept. 1 that the two patients showed symptoms associated with the incidents, the State Department put the Havana mission on a “voluntary departure” status, allowing any of those serving there to leave with their families. The reason the department gave for the order was the impending Hurricane Irma, which raged across the north coast of the Island a few days later.
But many of those who left temporarily would not return, or would go back only to gather their belongings. In a sweeping, punitive action on Sept. 29, the State Department ordered home 24 of the 47 diplomats assigned to Havana, including all of those with families. It effectively shut down the embassy’s consular section except for emergency services. The department then ordered 15 more Cuban diplomats to leave Washington, including some involved in visa-processing and commercial affairs.
The department still did not accuse the Cuban government of direct involvement in what it called the Havana “attacks.” But it warned Americans not to travel to the island in terms more ominous than those sometimes used for some countries wracked by political upheaval, and caveats it offered about the continuity of diplomatic relations were quickly lost in the surging rhetoric. “There is no way that someone could carry out these number of attacks, with that kind of technology, without the Cubans knowing about it,” asserted Senator Rubio, who had again been urging a more forceful response. “They either did it, or they know who did it.”
The Cubans, Trump declared, “did some very bad things.”
It was a script that the Cuban government seemed to recognize. The foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, who had earlier called Trump’s Miami speech in June “a grotesque spectacle,” emphasized one point above others: The United States had presented no evidence whatsoever that the Cubans had done anything but try to help investigate the problem. Although the United States has suggested that Cuba have failed to live up to its responsibilities to protect foreign diplomats under the Vienna Conventions, Cuban officials have emphasized that Washington has not cited any specific actions the Cuban government has failed to take toward that end.
“Cuba has taken absolutely no measures at all against the United States,” Rodríguez said, referring to American sanctions. “It does not discriminate against its companies. It invites its citizens to visit us, promotes dialogue and bilateral cooperation.” The actions taken by the United States, he added, “can only benefit the sinister interests of a handful of people.”
Foreign-policy experts inside and outside the government generally agree that the Havana incidents seem to run counter to the interests of the Castro government. “The Cuban regime was not interested in antagonizing the Trump administration,” said Craig Deare, who was fired last February as the National Security Council’s senior Latin America specialist after he criticized Trump’s confrontational approach to Mexico. “It didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense to me now.”
The diplomats’ expulsions and the travel warning, along with the earlier tightening of the embargo and the hurricane, have already cut the flow of American tourists to the island. American business activity has dropped off further, in part due to the departure of Cuban diplomats in Washington who set up meetings and processed visas. Cuban dissidents also have complained that declining tourism has badly hurt small, independent businesses like guest houses, family restaurants and the like.
The Cuban government’s own investigation into the incidents has been another central piece of its public relations counteroffensive. According to Cuban news accounts, some 2,000 people have been involved in the inquiry, in which police detectives have questioned neighbors of the diplomats (who said they did not recall hearing anything unusual), Cuban doctors (who wondered why the Americans had never sought attention for their acute problems) and their own battery of scientists and technologists.
Cuban engineers also analyzed recordings that officials said were made by the American diplomats. The engineers also concluded that the noises were at decibel levels too low to cause hearing loss — but that the primary sounds on the recordings were made by cicadas. Other Cuban scientists have suggested that the Americans’ illnesses were psychosomatic.
Despite months of scrutiny by American intelligence assets, officials said U.S. intelligence agencies have gathered virtually no secondary evidence that Cuba might have assisted directly or indirectly in attacks on the Americans. Nor is there any indication that the Cuban government has identified some rogue faction of security forces that might have wanted to undermine the rapprochement with Washington, officials said.
The idea of such a rogue element working to subvert a major government initiative has been bandied about frequently in Washington in recent months. Although the inner workings of the Castro regime have always been somewhat opaque to outsiders, many longtime analysts of the Cuban politics are skeptical. “It’s hugely ironic that the rogue faction theory is coming from exactly the same people who say the Cuban government knows absolutely everything that’s going on in the country,” Armstrong, the former senior CIA analyst, said. “But there has never been any evidence of rogue factions working outside the system.” He recalled that in the one case that perhaps came closest — the show-trial conviction of several influential military and intelligence officers for drug trafficking and other crimes in 1989 — there was even some circumstantial evidence that the illicit activities had been tolerated by superiors.
Other than a few wildly far-fetched possibilities — North Korean agents running around Havana, or perhaps a secret team of Venezuelan spies subverting their own government’s closest ally — that would seem to leave only Russia. For Moscow, helping to derail the hard-won entente between Washington and Havana might constitute a geopolitical masterstroke, some U.S. officials said. It would fit into the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign to undermine its western adversaries, using everything from espionage operations to election cyberattacks. Russia also has a long history of harassing American diplomats, a pattern that has intensified in Moscow since 2014, said Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank.
After some years of Cuban hostility following the Soviet Union’s collapse and Russia’s withdrawal of the vast subsidies it had provided for decades, the Kremlin has made new efforts to solidify the two countries’ strategic bond. Russia has helped to offset the loss of Venezuelan oil imports with 1.9 million barrels of fuel (estimated to be worth $105 million at discounted rates), and Russian exports to Cuba nearly doubled last year. In December, Raúl Castro received the head of the Russian state energy giant Rosneft, stirring speculation that a major oil-exploration or supply deal might be in the works. The two countries’ security relationship has also grown. In December of 2016, just as the incidents affecting U.S. personnel began, Russia and Cuba signed a new agreement on defense and technology cooperation.
Along with a possible motive, the Russians might have the technological means — or at least the capacity to have plausibly developed a directed-energy weapon that U.S. scientists could not identify. Yet by now, officials said, intelligence analysts would also have expected to have culled from electronic intercepts of overseas conversations at least some secondary evidence that the Russians might be involved — suspicious telephone or email conversations, suggestive messages, movements of Russian agents — something. But officials said they have found virtually nothing that would constitute real evidence. They also wonder whether Russia would risk its growing relationship with Cuba by carrying out an operation that could undermine the island’s most important diplomatic initiative in decades.
Even if Russia had developed some new and compact directed-energy weapon that could have been used to attack the American diplomats, there would still have been extremely complex logistical challenges to its deployment. Russian agents would presumably have had to locate at least two dozen American diplomats in Havana, reach them covertly and repeatedly, and in some of the most heavily policed areas of what many consider a police state. Nor have intelligence agencies documented tests of a similar weapon on some other target, or signs that Russia might have moved agents into Cuba to carry out such an operation.
In the continuing absence of any real evidence of how the Americans were stricken, the Trump administration appears to have no easy path forward. About 10 of the diplomats and spouses continue to undergo vestibular and neurological rehabilitation, both in Washington and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Some have moved on to new jobs in Washington or overseas, or have been kept busy in the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau with such tasks as processing Freedom of Information Act requests or handling employment applications with the human resources staff, officials said.
By March 4, the State Department will have to decide whether to make the withdrawal of the diplomats a permanent reduction in staff. An internal department document obtained by ProPublica also suggests that the slowdown of consular activity may make it difficult for the United States to meet its commitment to processing at least 20,000 immigrant visas for Cubans this year, an annual target that is important to Cuban-Americans seeking to bring relatives from the island. American diplomats — including some of those forced to leave Havana — also say that the department has also reduced its ability to see, understand and perhaps influence what is happening in Cuba at a potentially historic transition point.
“Our diplomats want to go back,” one American official who has been extensively briefed on the developments in Havana said. “But if you can’t get to the bottom of this situation, how does that happen?”
In the November issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Commander Daniel Thomassen of the Royal Norwegian Navy argued that Russia’s dream to build a blue water, or global, navy remains a “pipe dream.”
Russia’s navy has made headlines recently with high profile cruise missile strikes on Syria, and the deployment of the core of its northern fleet, including the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier, to the Mediterranean.
“Russia is capable of being a regional naval power in local theaters of choice. But large-scale efforts to develop an expensive expeditionary navy with aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships only would diminish Russia’s geographically overstretched homeland defense forces,” writes Thomassen.
Thomassen goes on to point out that strong navies have strong allies and healthy fleets. While Russia has been improving its fleet with some particularly good submarines, it lacks a big fleet that can build partnerships with allies around the world through bilateral exercises.
But the state of Russia’s navy now is only part of the picture. Russia has never been a major naval power, Thomassen points out. At times Moscow has established itself as a coastal naval power, but it never had a truly global reach on par with historic powers like England or Spain.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to Russian leadership, which has set “highly ambitious governmental guidelines for developing and using sea power over the next decades.”
In addition to its submarine fleet, Russia wants new frigates, cruisers, and even carriers. These prospects seem especially dubious because Russia’s Kuznetsov isn’t really a strike carrier like the US’s Nimitz-class carriers.
The Kuznetsov has never conducted a combat mission. Mechanical troubles plague the Kuznetsov, so much so that it often sails with a tugboat. Also, the Kuznetsov just isn’t built for the kind of mission it will undertake off Syria’s coast.
The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. | Creative Commons photo
“Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended ‘bastions’ shielding their ballistic missile submarines and not seaborne power projection.
In fact, Russia itself doesn’t have the makings of a global sea power. While it has both Pacific and Atlantic coasts, like the US, the population of Russia’s far east is about as sparse as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
But one powerful reason dictates why Russia’s leadership still marches towards this seemingly unattainable goal — prestige. Being seen as a credible alternative to Western naval power seems important to Russian leadership, and operating a carrier is one way to do that. Additionally, Moscow will spin its carrier deployment as propaganda, or a showcase for its military wares.
So while Russia has capable, credible naval forces to defend its homeland and near interests, it will likely never project power abroad like the US and other naval powers of the past have.
This week, both the British Ministry of Defense and the US Navy have made strides towards directed energy weapons that could change the face of warfare as we know it.
The British, for their part, are eyeing a laser system that could compliment the Phalanx close-in anti-missile system, which detects, tracks, and can destroy approaching threats at closer ranges than other missile defense platforms.
Currently, the Phalanx is a computer-guided system that relies on a 20 mm Gatling gun. The British are looking to do away with the gun and substitute a laser.
“It’s better to spend money on the laser than on the mount,” Andy Rhodes, a business development executive at Raytheon UK told Defensenews.com.
Lasers offer a number of advantages over traditional guns. As they rely only on electricity, lasers can be fired for less than $1 a shot. Also, no round will ever travel anywhere near as fast as a laser, which obviously travels at the speed of light.
“The potential of laser-based weapons systems has been identified as an opportunity and offers significant advantages in terms of running costs as well as providing a more appropriate response to the threats currently faced by UK armed forces,” the British MoD stated.
Additionally, lasers on lower power settings can be used to overwhelm enemy sensors and instruments.
The US Navy for their part has also taken a step towards directed energy weapons. On Monday, Raytheon delivered pulse power containers for the Navy to test out on a new railgun design.
Unlike lasers, railguns fire actual projectiles, however, they use directed energy to do it.
Raytheon says the pulse power containers, when incorporated into a completed railgun design, will be able to launch projectiles at speeds in excess of Mach 6, or about 4,600 mph. At those speeds, there is little need for an explosive round with a chemical charge.
“Directed energy has the potential to redefine military technology beyond missiles and our pulse power modules and containers will provide the tremendous amount of energy required to power applications like the Navy Railgun,” said Colin Whelan, vice president of Advanced Technology for Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems business.
The Navy’s railgun could find itself aboard the Futuristic USS Zumwalt as soon as 2018,Reuters reports.
“The Navy is determined to increase the offensive punch of the surface warships,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “To do that with a limited budget, it needs to look at everything from smart munitions to railguns to lasers.”
Russia has warned the US that its military and allied Syrian forces are ready to attack a key US-held base near the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, US defense officials said in a CNN report published on Sept. 6, 2018.
The Kremlin is said to have accused the US-led coalition base At Tanf of protecting nearby militants, with Russia delivering two warnings in the past week, CNN said, citing US officials. At Tanf, from which a coalition of dozens of US troops and Syrian rebels launch operations against the Islamic State terrorist group, is seen as a critical location within the scope of Iranian, Syrian, and Russian influence in the region.
“We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf,” a US official told CNN. “We are postured to respond.”
“The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing it support,” another official added. “However, if attacked, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition, or partner forces.”
US troops would not need permission from superiors to defend themselves if attacked, which the US reiterated to the Kremlin, CNN reported.
A state-sanctioned attack by Russia could spark a flashpoint conflict in the region. Tensions were raised in February 2018 after dozens of Russian mercenaries were killed during a failed assault on a US-held position near the city of Deir al-Zor.
Russian forces have not recently been seen amassing their troops; however, the US military is still on alert, officials said. Senior military officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are aware of the warnings, CNN said.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
(Dept. of Defense Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
Russia’s warnings come amid a looming assault by Syrian and Iranian forces against the city of Idlib, where Syrian rebels have been cornered. Russia delivered an ominous warning in August 2018 that some experts saw as an indication that the Syrian government might indiscriminately use chemical weapons against the city.
The US followed with a threat of its own, warning Syrian President Bashar Assad that if he “chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately.”
“President Donald J. Trump has warned that such an attack would be a reckless escalation of an already tragic conflict and would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement.
Featured image: Members of 5th Special Forces Group (A) conducting 50. Cal Weapons training during counter ISIS operations at Al Tanf Garrison in southern Syria.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Turkish forces decimated the Syrian army in a series of drone, artillery and bomber attacks this weekend, leaving Syria’s top ally Russia weighing how much it should intervene to stop the offensive.
Turkey turned its total air superiority — via a fleet of cheap drones and high-tech F-16s — into an operation that claimed at least two Syrian jet fighters, eight helicopters, 135 tanks, and 77 other armored vehicles, with as many as 2,500 Syrian troops killed, according to the Turkish defense ministry.
It’s left the Syrian military unable to protect its frontline armor and artillery units, which have been methodically targeted by cheap but highly accurate missiles.
And with Russia thus far unwilling to directly confront the Turkish military, Bashar al-Assad’s army could continue to suffer, paving the way for Turkey to achieve its goal of pushing regime forces out of Idlib.
Turkey’s defense ministry has been tweeting footage from the attacks:
Turkey’s aggressive push into Idlib ramped up late last week after a suspected Russian airstrike killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers last Thursday night, and Turkey and Syria moved into direct military confrontation.
Turkey poured at least 7,000 regular army forces into the rebel-held Syrian pocket of Idlib, whose collapse after a monthslong offensive from the regime threatened to send almost a million Syrian refugees over a border into Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week had warned that the Syrian offensive into Idlib — which is backed by heavy Russian air support — must end to prevent hundreds of thousands of new refugees from joining more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.
But when Syrian troops ignored these demands, Ankara approved a military operation that immediately began the systematic destruction of Syrian regime units in the area.
On Sunday the Turkish defense ministry officially announced “Operation Spring Shield,” a campaign to push against the Syrian advance in Idlib, though the attacks had already begun days earlier.
On Monday, Russian air units were supporting Syrian military units attempting to recapture the strategic crossroads of Saraqeb from the rebels, but they appeared to only be targeting Syrian rebels backed by Turkey, rather than Turkish forces directly.
Control of Saraqeb could determine much of the final outcome for Idlib as it controls a highway junction that links Damascus, the Syrian capital, to Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
Turkey is believed to only seek security for the Idlib pocket to prevent a further influx of refugees fleeing the regime advance.
So far, it’s unclear how far Moscow is willing to go to help its Syrian allies retake the entirety of the country after a nearly ten-year-old civil war that’s killed half a million people and displaced nearly a third of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have scheduled a meeting in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the situation.