Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Pentagon grounds F-35 fighter fleet | Trump calls US-Saudi relationship 'excellent' | Adds that ties would be hurt if journalist was killed

Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Pentagon grounds F-35 fighter fleet | Trump calls US-Saudi relationship 'excellent' | Adds that ties would be hurt if journalist was killed
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. And if you don't get our newsletter, CLICK HERE to subscribe.


THE TOPLINE: The Pentagon's entire fleet of F-35 joint strike fighters is grounded after the jets' fuel tubes were suspected to be the cause of a crash last month, the Defense Department announced Thursday.

"The U.S. Services and international partners have temporarily suspended F-35 flight operations while the enterprise conducts a fleet-wide inspection of a fuel tube within the engine on all F-35 aircraft," the F-35 Joint Program Office said in a statement.

"If suspect fuel tubes are installed, the part will be removed and replaced. If known good fuel tubes are already installed, then those aircraft will be returned to flight status."

Inspections are expected to be completed within the next 24 to 48 hours, the program office noted.

What's the problem? The possible issue with the fuel tubes appears to be fleetwide, as it is linked to the fighters' Pratt & Whitney-made engine, installed in all variants.

A spokesman from F-35 maker Lockheed Martin told The Hill Thursday that the company has completed inspection on aircraft in Fort Worth, Texas -- where the fighter is made -- and they are resuming flights.

"We are actively partnering with the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office, our global customers and Pratt & Whitney to support the resolution of this issue and limit disruption to the fleet," the Lockheed spokesman said. 

The office also said the inspections were prompted by "initial data from the ongoing investigation of the F-35B that crashed" on Sept. 28. near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C.

In that crash, the pilot safely ejected from the fighter.


A history of issues: The incident came a day after the Pentagon announced that the U.S. had used an F-35 in combat for the first time to conduct an airstrike in Afghanistan.

The F-35 program, the most expensive weapons program in history, has been decried by critics as a boondoggle. The fifth generation fighter jet has had numerous issues, including cost overruns and technical glitches.

The F-35B is the Marine Corps' version of the fighter and has the ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. It was declared combat-ready in 2015, the first variant to reach the milestone.

The military has had a spate of aircraft crashes and mishaps in the past year, including an emergency landing with a Marine Corps F-35B in April, at Cherry Point, N.C.

The program office insists, however, that it will "take every measure to ensure safe operations while we deliver, sustain and modernize the F-35 for the warfighter and our defense partners."





TRUMP PRAISES US-SAUDI RELATIONSHIP, BUT SAYS THAT COULD CHANGE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE on Thursday called U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia "excellent" but indicated that could change if the Saudi government is found to have orchestrated the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

"I would say they're excellent," Trump said of the relationship with the country during an interview on "Fox & Friends" when asked what is at stake given Khashoggi's disappearance, which occurred last week at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

The background: Khashoggi is a U.S. resident who has been critical of the Saudi government, which has close ties to the Trump administration. Khashoggi's is disappearance has triggered international outrage. 

The only irritant Trump singled out with Saudi Arabia was his belief the U.S. is paying too much to defend them, saying "there would be no Saudi Arabia if there wasn't a United States because we protected them." 

The incident has sparked scrutiny of the Trump administration's close ties to the Saudi government, and Trump himself has faced criticism for being too slow to respond to the disappearance of Khashoggi. 

What is the red line? When pressed by "Fox & Friends" hosts if U.S.-Saudi ties would be jeopardized if it was discovered that Khashoggi was killed, Trump said, "You're right."

"I have to find out what happened. I mean, I do have to find out. And we're probably getting closer than you might think. But I have to find out what happened," the president said.

He indicated that U.S. investigators are in the area looking into the incident. 

Corker cries foul: Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Thursday that while he hopes Khashoggi is alive, "everything indicates" that Saudi Arabia murdered him.

"If it's found that they, as everything indicates today ... murdered a journalist, that will hugely change our relationship. I mean, there's no question about it," Corker told reporters.

He added that while he hopes Khashoggi is found alive, or sequestered somewhere, "everything points to the fact that ... this was something that was thought out and done and that's he's not alive anymore."

Corker separately told reporters on Capitol Hill, "I think they did it and I think, unfortunately, he's deceased."

And Turkey's president questions lack of video footage: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday questioned claims from Saudi officials that the country's consulate in Istanbul only has cameras that record live footage as Turkey looks into the disappearance of Khashoggi.

 "Is it possible for there to be no camera systems at the Saudi Arabia consulate, where the event took place?," Erdoğan, said, according to local news reports.

The Turkish president expressed skepticism over statements by Saudi officials that their cameras only provide live feeds, and therefore can't be used to look at recorded footage from when Khashoggi was last seen. 


TRUMP PRAISE FOR NORTH KOREA COMPLICATES CYBER DETERRENCE: President Trump's recent goodwill toward North Korea is at odds with his administration's attempts to crack down on the country's cyberattacks, and experts say the president's plaudits could hinder U.S.-led efforts to deter North Korean aggression in cyberspace.

North Korea has shown no signs of curtailing its aggressive cyber tactics, despite a Department of Justice (DOJ) complaint last month blaming the country's government for several high-profile cyberattacks. Researchers for security firm FireEye recently observed that the DOJ's very public allegations have "thus far failed to put an end to their activity."

But even as more examples of the cyber threat emerge, Trump has remained largely complimentary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as he looks to reach a historic deal on denuclearization. Analysts say a more unified front is necessary to stop Pyongyang's cyber efforts.

Changes in tone: The administration has promised to stay tough on North Korea until it denuclearizes. But Trump's remarks toward Kim have changed dramatically during his presidency, going from promises to unleash "fire and fury" over the nation's missile tests to recently saying he and Kim "fell in love."

"I was really being tough and so was he," Trump said at a rally in West Virginia late last month. "And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love. No really. He wrote me beautiful letters."

Those comments came the same month that the DOJ attempted to "name and shame" North Korea in a 179-page complaint about the country's alleged involvement in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, the WannaCry malware attack and the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh.

And on the day that his administration unveiled the first U.S. charges against a North Korean hacker, Trump praised Kim twice that day, with a tweet in the morning and remarks at a rally that night.

Part of a strategy? Some experts say Trump is prioritizing denuclearization, which has led him to pursue his own strategy on North Korea, separate from the U.S. intelligence community's cyber goals.

Andy Keiser, a former Trump transition national security official, said Trump is running "a very high-level negotiations strategy" to try to get North Korea to denuclearize. He said that while that may lead to competing messages, it might not be "avoidable."

Many experts and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long called for a whole-of-government approach to deterring malicious cyber actors, saying a unified front can help set clear lines as to what is and isn't considered acceptable behavior in cyberspace.



UAE-led operations have degraded Al Qaeda’s ability to plot attacks against the US and other global targets. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now at its weakest since 2012. Learn more.



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