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Beijing ‘displeased’ after USS McCain sails close to the disputed Spratly Islands in a ‘freedom of navigation’ operation

A US warship has sailed close to an artificial island created by China in the South China Sea as part of a “freedom of navigation” operation.

The USS John S McCain destroyer sailed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef, part of the disputed Spratly Islands south of the Paracel Islands.

A US official said a Chinese frigate sent radio warnings at least 10 times to the USS McCain.

“They called and said ‘Please turn around, you are in our waters,’” the official said.

“We told them we are a US [ship] conducting routine operations in international waters.”

The official said the interactions were all “safe and professional”, with the operation lasting about six hours from start to finish.

China’s foreign ministry said: “The US destroyer’s actions have violated Chinese and international laws, as well as severely harmed China’s sovereignty and security.

“China is very displeased with this and will bring up the issue with the US side.”

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and several south-east Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The freedom of navigation operation – known in the military as a “Fonop” – was bound to annoy Beijing and was the third of its kind carried out by the United States since President Donald Trump took office.

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Transgender ban: The economic costs

On Wednesday, five transgender members of the U.S. armed forces sued President Trump over his plans to ban trans troops from serving in the military. The suit, filed in federal court by two LGBT rights groups on behalf of the anonymous service members, came in response to Trump’s tweetslast month announcing that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. The ban hasn’t yet taken effect, but the suit argues that transgender troops are already being harmed by the uncertainty Trump’s tweets created.

The lawsuit doesn’t address it directly, but Trump’s ban could hurt trans people economically. There is little concrete data on trans people — the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law, estimates that 1.4 million adults (0.6 percent) identify as transgender — but research suggests that trans people face high rates of homelessness and unemployment. In other words, if trans people are kicked out of the military, they may have trouble finding jobs in civilian life.

Trans people aren’t the first marginalized group to see military service as a possible pathway to wider acceptance. Serving in World War II helped African-Americans demand the full rights of citizenship. Society’s support for gay marriage went up after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011. The military, which grants 12 weeks of paid maternal leave to service members, is ahead of many other institutions when it comes to providing maternal leave. There’s also research that shows how greater mobilization of men in the military during World War II drew many women into permanent employment.

Trump’s ban, in other words, could hurt not only trans people serving in the military but also trans people who never intend to serve. It could set back efforts to demand protections against employment discrimination for trans people, as well as efforts to demand equal status in society more generally.

“Military service in the U.S. has been traditionally understood as a peaceful obligation to citizenship,” said Beth Bailey, a history professor at the University of Kansas. “Participating in the military gives people grounds for claiming the full rights of citizenship and full legitimacy in American society.”

Drug policy: State of emergency

On Thursday, Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. In doing so, he followed the advice of his opioid commission, which called on him to declare an emergency as part of its preliminary recommendationslate last month. Public health experts argued that the move could allow the administration to act more aggressively in response to the crisis by modifying health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid and allowing localities access to federal relief funds as it would during a natural disaster.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Trump would take the commission’s advice. At a briefing on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said that the administration could get the resources it needs to fight the epidemic without an emergency declaration. Some drug policy advocates likewise showed a little skepticism over how effective an emergency declaration would be and concern on whether the administration would use the power to further push a war on drugs, but others welcomed the suggestion as a push for the administration to act more urgently on the crisis.

It’s not clear, however, whether Trump will embrace the commission’s other recommendations, which were generally well received by public health professionals. Most of the commission’s recommendations focused on treating opioids as a public-health crisis by expanding access to treatment and making life-saving drugs more widely available. At Tuesday’s briefing, Trump focused instead on tougher law enforcement, as he has in the past.

“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem,” Trump said, before before taking a question on North Korea.

Health care: Upward spiral

Though Republican efforts to repeal and replace parts of the Affordable Care Act have come to a standstill, we continue slowly moving toward a different milestone: setting prices for the insurance plans that will be sold on the individual marketplace in 2018. Final rates won’t be set in many states until the end of September, but we’re starting to get an idea of what prices could look like and, as with last year, there are likely going to be big regional differences in price changes.

On Thursday, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report looking at insurance prices in 21 cities in 20 states. Providence, Rhode Island, had the lone projected decrease in the cost of premiums for its benchmark plan,1likely dropping from $261 in 2017 to $248 next year. With the exception of Detroit’s, that is also the cheapest plan for 2018 in the cities Kaiser looked at. Meanwhile, Wilmington, Delaware, is at the high end of the cities, expected to see a 49 percent increase in cost, from $423 to $631. Notably, many of the cities that started with the lowest priced plans when the ACA marketplaces opened for 2014 are now seeing the highest costs. Researchers and insurance companies say this is no coincidence: Places where insurers priced plans too low initially have had a hard time recovering from the instability that ensued, and have tended to end up with higher-cost plans in the long term.

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Theresa May urged to suspend controlled export licences to Venezuelan government while violent clashes continue

Britain has sold military equipment worth millions of pounds to Venezuela in the last decade, it has emerged, prompting calls for Theresa May to suspend controlled export licences while the country in is the grip of violent clashes between police and protesters.

Government figures show military equipment was approved for sale from UK-based companies to Venezuela’s armed forces as recently as September last year, despite the Foreign Office listing the country as “of concern” regarding human rights.

Overall, £2.5m of military goods have been sold to the country since 2008, including components for military radar, weapon sights and military aircraft engines. In the last year of figures, to March 2016, licences for goods worth more than £80,000 were approved, including equipment for crowd control to be used by law enforcement agencies.

The revelations will prompt questions about why the government continues to allow arms sales to countries the Foreign Office lists as having a poor human rights record, from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia.

No 10 has repeatedly criticised Nicolás Maduro’s government for imprisoning opposition leaders. It described the death of at least 120 protesters as a tragedy, and called on the country to respect human rights and uphold the rule of law.

Some senior Conservatives have attacked the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for condemning violence on all sides but stopping short of specifically criticising the Maduro government.

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrats deputy leader, said it “smacks of double standards for the Tories to attack the Labour leadership for supporting Venezuela whilst selling arms and security equipment to dictators and regimes with even worse human rights records.

“The Conservatives have rightly hailed the importance of supporting human rights and democracy in Venezuela. But they seem to find it irrelevant when it comes to selling billions of pounds of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which executed 153 people by beheading in 2016 and is indiscriminately bombing civilians in Yemen. In the past two years, the Conservative government has even continued selling security equipment to Venezuela.

“Both parties should stop playing politics with human rights and realise that these values are universal. I hope all MPs will support our call for presumption of denial, meaning a blanket ban on licences to countries which abuse human rights unless there is explicit ministerial sign-off.”

The Lib Dems highlighted £1.2bn of sales of UK military equipment to entities in countries on the government’s human rights concern list in the last year, including £300m to Saudi Arabia, £250m to China, £191m to Russia, £8.8m to Egypt and £3.6m to Turkmenistan.

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The United States and its allies have military options for confronting North Korea — including an all-out invasion, more limited air and missile strikes, cyberattacks or a covert effort to oust the regime of Kim Jong Un.

But those scenarios carry enormous risks, including the possibilities of loss of life, loose nukes falling into terrorists’ hands or the conflict spreading to a wider Asian war.

The military options, as unthinkable as they seem, are gaining heightened attention as President Donald Trump threatens to retaliate with “fire and fury” if the communist regime continues its saber-rattling, while North Korea threatens a missile strike on Guam. Trump doubled down on his incendiary rhetoric Thursday, telling reporters that “maybe it wasn’t tough enough.”

“North Korea better get their act together, or they’re gonna be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world,” he said.

Here are actions the U.S. could take against North Korea — and the potential risks.

All-out invasion

The Korean War never officially ended after the armistice in 1953, and the United States has had serious contingency plans for resumed combat on the peninsula ever since. But even the 21st-century U.S. military would face a daunting fight if it invaded to unseat Kim’s government.

North Korea’s active-duty military consists of 1.2 million people with another 600,000 in the reserves, the Congressional Research Service reported last year. It also has military facilities spread throughout the countryside and a vast network of underground caves and bunkers where it stores weapons close to its neighbor South Korea. Those include large stockpiles of outlawed chemical weapons, such as nerve gas.

More than 25,000 U.S. forces remain stationed in South Korea, operating under the motto of being ready to “fight tonight.” The United States Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii, also has at its disposal far more American military personnel, including a full 60 percent of the Navy.

But even with significant help from South Korea’s highly trained armed forces — upward of 600,000 people — a go-for-broke invasion would require massive numbers of U.S. ground and air forces, missile ships and reinforcements. And it would probably require pulling American troops away from other national security priorities, writes Mark Almond, director of Oxford University’s Crisis Research Institute.

An offensive attack by U.S. and South Korean forces could also provoke a response from China, which borders North Korea and fought alongside it in the Korean War, raising the prospect of a great-power confrontation.

Almond also warns that a pre-emptive attack could compel the North Koreans to unleash thousands of short-range artillery rounds and other firepower across the 38th parallel and into Seoul, South Korea’s capital and largest city, which lies just 35 miles from the fortified border, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

Such a war would be far from a cakewalk, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned lawmakers at a hearing in June.

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind, if we go to war with North Korea, that we will win the war,” Dunford said, but added that “we will see casualties unlike anything we’ve seen in 60 or 70 years.”
Other attempts at regime change

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that the U.S. does “not seek a regime change” in North Korea, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo seemed to suggest last month that ousting the Kim regime and separating it from its nuclear arsenal were at least on the table.

Options for taking out Kim’s government include ground raids by special operations forces or drone or conventional airstrikes targeting the leader. The U.S. could also support a government in exile to help facilitate a coup by disgruntled North Koreans.

Protesters outside the White House last month after President Trump announced that he would bar transgender people from serving openly in the military. CreditJonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Thursday that he is doing the United States military a “great favor” by barring transgender people from serving in its ranks — even though the Pentagon has made no move to expel personnel since the commander in chief first tweeted the policy about-face two weeks ago.

The White House has yet to make public any formal guidance on how the Defense Department is supposed to turn Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts into policy. Last year, many transgender service members came forward after being assured by the Obama administration that they could serve openly in the military. Pentagon officials have said privately that they do not see how to expel current service members, or bar future ones from joining the military, without opening the Defense Department up to lawsuits.

“It’s been a very confusing issue for the military, and I think I’m doing the military a great favor,” Mr. Trump said during an impromptu news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

He declared that he has “great respect” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and denied that his ban amounted to a betrayal after pledging to protect them during last year’s campaign.

“I’ve had great support from that community,” Mr. Trump said. “I got a lot of votes.”

He said the military is “working on it now,” adding that “I think I’m doing a lot of people a favor by coming out and just saying it.”

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WASHINGTON — In his six months as Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly often described the White House as one of the most dysfunctional organizations he had ever seen, complained to colleagues and allies about its meddling, incompetence and recklessness, and was once so angry he briefly considered quitting.

Now as President Trump’s chief of staff, he is doing something about it — with a suddenness and force that have upended the West Wing.

Mr. Kelly cuts off rambling advisers midsentence. He listens in on conversations between cabinet secretaries and the president. He has booted lingering staff members out of high-level meetings, and ordered the doors of the Oval Office closed to discourage strays. He fired Anthony Scaramucci, the bombastic New Yorker who was briefly the communications director, and has demanded that even Mr. Trump’s family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, check with him if they want face time with the president.

On Wednesday, his third day on the job, he delivered a message about respecting chains of command, backing the decision of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to dismiss Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Kushner ally and staff member on the National Security Council. It was a move Mr. Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, had long opposed, according to two administration officials.

Whether Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, will succeed in imposing military discipline on the faction-ridden White House remains in doubt; Mr. Trump has never been known to follow anybody’s direction, in Trump Tower or the White House. But Mr. Trump has never encountered anyone quite like Mr. Kelly, a combat veteran whose forceful management style and volatile temper are a match for the president’s.

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A very unique USAF surveillance aircraft has been flying highly defined circles over Seattle and its various suburbs for nine days now. Nobody at the DoD seems to know who the aircraft belongs to or what exactly it is doing flying so many missions over the Seattle area. But based on its visibly exotic configuration, and information collected by open source flight tracking websites, we can get a good idea of its capabilities and guess as to what it’s up to.

The aircraft, which goes by the callsign “SPUD21” and wears a nondescript flat gray paint job with the only visible markings being a USAF serial on its tail, is a CASA CN-235-300 transport aircraft that has been extensively modified for the surveillance mission. You can see more pictures of the aircraft here.


SPUD21 has flown roughly a dozen patrols over the Seattle area since arriving there on July 24th. The aircraft still remains at Boeing Field at the time of publishing.

It is covered in a dizzying array of blisters, protrusions, humps and bumps. These include missile approach warning detectors and large fairings on its empennage for buckets of forward-firing decoy flares, as well as both microwave—the dome antenna behind the wing and flat antenna modification in front of the wing—and ultra high-frequency satellite communications—the platter-like antenna behind the dome antenna. A communications intelligence suite also appears to be installed on the aircraft, with the antenna farm on the bottom of its fuselage being a clear indication of such a capability.

But what’s most interesting is the aircraft’s apparent visual intelligence gathering installation. It is placed in a fixed position, on the left side of the aircraft, below the plane’s forward emergency door. The rectangle structure has a sliding door that covers the system’s sensors when not in use.

On the lower end of the capabilities spectrum, the system installed could be similar to the DB110 reconnaissance system, which can provide very high fidelity imagery of a target area from standoff “slant” ranges. The system, which is popular among F-16 operators in a podded version, can be acquired in varying configurations. Some have multi-spectral fusion capability, where electro-optical and infrared imagery is combined to bring out unique details that neither can see alone. An additional wider angle camera is also available as well, along with an assortment of data-link options that can send the system’s imagery to analysts and “customers” on the ground for rapid exploitation. In this case, the analysts could fly inside the aircraft, eliminating the requirement—or at least the outright need—for such a feature.


The DB-110 pod uses a very similar sliding door installation about the same size as the one installed on the CN-235.

On the higher end of the capability spectrum, the aperture could be filled with a wide area aerial surveillance (WAAS) camera system that can view a large area—the size of a town—continuously at one time. This technology, which allows for tagging of vehicles and other moving objects, and can even be used retroactively to trace someone’s movements over time, is among the biggest surveillance game-changers of our time. You can read all about how it works and its great potential to change everything from how we survey the battlefield to how we solve crimes here at home in this past feature.

WAAS camera systems have rapidly evolved over the last decade and have gone from the battlefield to the commercial market here at home. They also now come in all different sizes and capability classes—as well as a variety of interesting sounding names to go with them such as “Gorgon Stare,” “Hawkeye” and “ARGUS” to name a few. In fact, WAAS payloads, which were once the domain of larger aircraft like the  MQ-9 Reaper drone and King Air twin turboprop, are now deployable on small tactical drones, such as the “Red Kite” sensor mounted on RQ-21 Blackjack used by Insitu, a Pacific Northwest company that is now owned by Boeing.


RQ-21 fitted with WAAS “Red Kite” sensor.

Some WAAS sensors require the aircraft to fly tight overhead orbits, while others work at a slant angle in relation to the ground. Considering the mounting location and aperture size on the CN-235 in question, this kind of “slant” setup would likely be the case. Also, the counterclockwise orbits the aircraft flies, between roughly six and twelve miles across, at altitudes from 17,000 to 22,000 feet, also indicate such a setup.


A sampling of tracks from SPUD21 missions around the Seattle area.

Above all else, these types of surveillance systems are especially good at capturing and monitoring so called “patterns of life” over and around a target area. This is an especially useful tool when collecting intelligence on an enemy target or group of targets over time and can open up new possibilities when it comes to the  process of finding, fixing and finishing the enemy.

Simply put, instead of recording a snapshot in time such as what a satellite can furnish, persistent airborne surveillance sensors capture massive amounts of exploitable information over hours and days. So if a picture is akin to a thousand words, this persistent type of wide area aerial surveillance is equivalent to an entire novel or even a series of novels.

When paired with communications intelligence gathering, such as intercepting radio communications and mobile and satellite phone chatter, a high fidelity “picture” of a targeted area and how specific targets in that area operate can be compiled in a relatively short period of time, all using a single relatively economical asset. Also, the aircraft’s extensive communications suite can take this information, including streaming video, and send it to a command center around the world or relay it to regional ground stations. As such, it can likely provide high-fidelity overwatch of ongoing special operations mission, and relay that video and/or audio to commanders in real time.

Now that we have at least some idea of what this aircraft is likely capable of, the big question is what is it doing over Seattle and its suburbs? And maybe even more important—who is operating it?

Aside from what appears to be a weekend off in Portland, Oregon, the aircraft flies its missions out of Boeing Field, and it is operating out of Clay Lacy Aviation, the local fixed based operator (FBO) at Boeing Field, not from Boeing’s military ramp. It is totally common for military aircraft—from fighters to transports—to use local FBOs when traveling away from home. In fact, aircrews often prefer the amenities and ease of access of a high-end private jet center over a nearby military base.

In Seattle at Boeing Field, Clay Lacy Aviation is famous for its seemingly constant stream of visiting military aircraft—but those aircraft aren’t usually executing highly peculiar surveillance missions over nearby urban areas for days on end. And the fact that the aircraft is not operating from the Boeing military ramp is a very good indication that its mission does not involve the aerospace giant. As such, this also largely eliminates the possibility of Boeing doing some sort of systems integration testing on the aircraft which could have explained some of its strange behavior.

As to who sent the aircraft and who even takes ownership of it, those details have turned out to be incredibly tough to pin down. Though it seems indisputable that the aircraft is or at least was U.S. government property at one point based on its Air Force-style serial number, none of the obvious U.S. military organizations claim they are aware of the CN-235 or its activities.

Public affairs officers at U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which oversees American military activities in North America, and its subordinate Joint Task Force-North (JTF-N), both said they weren’t tracking the aircraft or its mission. JTF-N is responsible for handling requests from domestic civilian agencies, such as Customs and Border Patrol, for military support, including contractor-operated surveillance aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) had similarly not been able to determine if the aircraft belonged to one of its units. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) forwarded yet another query on the issue back to AFSOC.

In an attempt to simply establish basic ownership, we reached out to the public affairs office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which keeps tabs on all of the service’s aircraft. After speaking with a number of individuals by phone and email on the subject, they decided to send our query to the Pentagon’s main public affairs office.


The CASA CN-235 is a favorite of militaries and mercenaries around the world. This example was operated in Afghanistan by the US mercenary firm popularly known as Blackwater.

Taken together, these responses would seem to point to what many observers might have already speculated immediately, that this was a mission or training exercise in support of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) or a civilian agency such as the Central Intelligence Agency. This particular CN-235, with the serial 96-6042, is one of six that researchers commonly associated with the Air Force’s top secret 427th Special Operations Squadron. Recent pictures of the other aircraft show they are all in relatively similar configurations at present.

The 427th occupies the same space with a host of other “black” U.S. military aviation elements, most of which are affiliated to some degree with JSOC and the Intelligence Community. The War Zone has previously explored what is publicly known about these units in great detail.

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Warning of “foreign infiltration,” Republicans are now looking to deport members of the U.S. military

The White House is currently celebrating “American Dream Week,” part of a gimmicky branding scheme meant to highlight President Donald Trump’s achievements. So far during this celebration Trump has unveiled his new immigration plan, saying he wants immigrants “who speak English,” and now the Civil Rights Division of his Department of Justice will reportedly investigate affirmative action programs for discriminating against white people. Last week, Trump tweeted his ban on transgender service members in the military during what the White House called “American Heroes Week.” See a pattern here?

Continuing to scapegoat vulnerable communities for political promotion, Trump’s administration appears poised to pick on a new target: foreign-born people who serve in the U.S. military. A group of soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve have filed a lawsuit this week, one of several by recruits in recent months, against the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. The suit cites an administration proposal to cancel enlistment contracts for 1,000 immigrant military recruits. About 2,400 part-time troops who have yet to attend basic training have also been targeted.

At issue is the Pentagon’s initiative to harness necessary medical and language skills in exchange for fast-track citizenship for foreign-born service members. A May 2017 memo from Pentagon officials addressed to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, which NPR obtained, states that officials plan to dismantle the program due to an “elevated risk to the Department” and the cost of additional background checks for the recruits. Fox News’ James Rosen reported this week that a recently completed Inspector General report, along with three separate congressional committees, has caused alarm over security risks within the program.

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Frustrated by his options, President Donald Trump is withholding approval of a long-delayed Afghanistan war strategy and even mulling a radical shakeup in his national security team as he searches for a “game changer” after 16 years of indecisive conflict.

In a recent Situation Room meeting that turned explosive, Trump raised the idea of firing Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussion. And he suggested installing his national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, to oversee the mission, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to talk publicly and requested anonymity.

The drastic suggestions point to the desperation shared by many in Washington as military and other leaders look for a blueprint for “winning” the Afghan conflict. Trump has been frustrated by what he views as a stalemate. He wants a plan that will allow American forces to pull out once and for all.

At a White House lunch with military brass last week, Trump publicly aired his misgivings, saying, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”

The Pentagon wants to send almost 4,000 more American forces to expand training of Afghan military forces and beef up U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida, a growing Islamic State affiliate and other extremist groups. But the troop deployment, which would augment an already existing U.S. force of at least 8,400 troops, has been held up amid broader strategy questions, including how to engage regional powers in an effort to stabilize the fractured nation.

These powers include U.S. friends and foes, from Pakistan and India to China, Russia and Iran. Pentagon plans aren’t calling for a radical departure from the limited approach endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and several officials have credited Trump with rightly asking tough questions, such as how the prescribed approach might lead to success.

Trump hasn’t welcomed the military’s recommendations with “high-five enthusiasm,” a senior White House official said. Several meetings involving Trump’s National Security Council have been tense as the president demanded answers from top advisers about why American forces needed to be in Afghanistan.

Another U.S. official with knowledge of the conversation reported Trump being less interested in hearing about how to restore Afghanistan to long-term stability, and more concerned about dealing a swift and definitive blow to militant groups in the country.

The White House has even offered its own, outside-the-box thinking.

Officials said Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, have been pushing a plan to have contractors fight the war in Afghanistan instead of U.S. troops. Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was approached by Trump’s top advisers to develop proposals to gradually swap out U.S. troops and put military contractors in their place, a military official said.

The military has frowned on such proposals. It believes boosting troop levels will accelerate progress in training Afghan troops and its air force, and help counterterrorism teams pursue targets even more aggressively. They point to improvements among Afghan forces and in anti-corruption efforts. Military leaders — including McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, are all said to be on the same page, as is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Military officials also have defended Nicholson, saying any punishment of him would be unfair because he hasn’t been given the forces he says he needs. His possible firing was first reported by NBC News.

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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 3, 2017 — About 225 Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Belgian military explosive ordnance disposal technicians, along with bomb squads from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, are exchanging tactics, techniques and procedures during a Raven’s Challenge XI exercise here.

Raven’s Challenge is an international, full-scale, live-fire, counter-improvised explosive device interoperability exercise that presents participating military EOD and civilian public safety bomb squad units with the opportunity to coalesce as a team, develop a plan and respond to an IED problem set, said John Simpson, Raven’s Challenge exercise program manager.

The exercise started as a regional exercise more than a decade ago, but it grew to a joint, international program with the support of the Army and is now conducted in five locations throughout the year. Previous exercises this year have been held at Pinal Airpark in Marana, Arizona; Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana; Camp Dawson in West Virginia; and Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

Importance of Interoperability

“With the threats that we’re seeing overseas and … if we have to respond to a problem stateside and deal with a threat on our own soil, it’s important to get that interoperability with the public safety bomb squads and the other federal agencies,” said Army Col. David Schmitt, the Army’s adaptive counter-IED/EOD solutions division chief, citing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration as the key federal agencies.

Marine Corps Sgt. James Higginbothan, left, plays the part of a terrorism victim with a simulated bomb strapped to his chest while explosive ordnance disposal team members Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Brian Murphy and Staff Sgt. Adam Bradach plan to rescue him during the Raven's Challenge EOD exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 2, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Marine Corps Sgt. James Higginbothan, left, plays the part of a terrorism victim with a simulated bomb strapped to his chest while explosive ordnance disposal team members Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Brian Murphy and Staff Sgt. Adam Bradach plan to rescue him during the Raven’s Challenge EOD exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 2, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

“This is a mobile kind of training event we can reproduce in multiple locations to give more units and more bomb squads opportunities, so that’s a chance for even more interoperability.”

Raven’s Challenge IX is designed to establish a learning environment for the EOD technicians to exercise counter-IED related emergency response procedures and multiple-agency interoperability, while focusing on goals such as EOD/public safety bomb squad interoperability in a realistic domestic tactical environment, Simpson said.

The training also provides the blended teams a non-evaluation training environment with the chance to conduct realistic scenarios such as a hostage scenario, a device attached to an unmanned system, a device found during an area sweep, an aircraft with a device in the baggage area and improvised mortars located on rooftops and in vehicles.

“The venue that this exercise provides is an amazing venue, because they get to do all of these different scenarios and use all these different techniques they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise at their home base,” Schmitt said. “Here, they can use all of their energetic tools and work in low light with night-vision goggles. That level of work and detail is beyond the level of any one small organization, so providing the venue, we get both the interoperability piece because we bring everybody together, but also the unique skill sets and techniques they would not normally be able to do on their own.”

Air Force Staff Sgt. Cole Carroll, left, updates a hand-drawn map to a bomb with Belgian army 1st Sgt. Maj. Nele Van Keer during the Raven's Challenge explosive ordnance disposal exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 1, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Air Force Staff Sgt. Cole Carroll, left, updates a hand-drawn map to a bomb with Belgian army 1st Sgt. Maj. Nele Van Keer during the Raven’s Challenge explosive ordnance disposal exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 1, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Training Unavailable at Home

“We don’t have the resources to be able to do this kind of training or even to bring it to a joint level,” said Air Force Airman 1st Class Will Ortiz from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. “So knowing the intel threat is actually out there and to come and demonstrate and try some of the techniques here — to see what actually works and doesn’t work without just having to guess — it’s invaluable.”

Army Spc. Seth Hamilton, an EOD technician from Fort Bliss, Texas, said not receiving training he gets during Raven’s Challenge is like “sending an infantryman to Afghanistan without ever having him shoot a rifle.”

“You have to do this kind of training,” he added. “Without it, you’re useless. You’re going to show up and not know what you’re doing, so it’s huge.”

Army Staff Sgt. Sean Mattes, also an EOD technician from Fort Bliss, said he’s worked with the Air Force multiple times downrange and in training events stateside. He said getting to use the tools in live events helped to build confidence in their tools.

“This was the first time in training where I was able to use live tools with a live crew, so that is huge in building confidence with the tools. That is the most important thing you can do,” he said. “Even if you are incredibly good with the tool, but you have no confidence in it or know how to use it really well, if you have no confidence in it, it’s pointless. So getting here, doing this, building the confidence is key.”

Belgian army Master Cpl. Harold Swillen helps put a bomb suit on U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brook Hamilton during the Raven's Challenge EOD exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 1, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Belgian army Master Cpl. Harold Swillen helps put a bomb suit on U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brook Hamilton during the Raven’s Challenge EOD exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 1, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

Sharing Information

Another goal is having the combined teams performing crosstalk on their core competencies and sharing tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs.

Belgian army 1st Sgt. Maj. Nele Van Keer was on a team with three Army Belgian team members and three airmen from Spangdahlem Air Base. The Belgians aren’t stationed together, but will be deploying together this fall to Afghanistan for the first time as a team. They will be deploying to a location where one of the Belgians and one of the Spangdahlem airmen had been.

“The interoperability is very important, because the other countries, they work in other war zones, and they know other stuff we don’t because we haven’t gone there before,” Van Keer said. “We don’t know all the TTPs over there. We need to talk so we have more skills and more knowledge.”

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