Mark Esper became the 27th U.S. defense secretary on Tuesday, after the full Senate (minus a few 2020 Dem hopefuls) voted to confirm him and Justice Samuel Alito swore him in. “Tuesday’s 90-8 vote ends the longest period in history that the Defense Department has gone without a confirmed leader,” writes Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams.
Can’t tell the players without a scorecard. The many unfilled jobs atop the Pentagon hierarchy caused a cascade of moves on Tuesday. Per Pentagon and Army spokesmen:
- Esper: SecArmy became SecDef
- David Norquist: Acting DepSecDef became DoD Comptroller/CFO
- Richard Spencer: Acting SecDef became SecNav & Acting DepSecDef
- Ryan McCarthy: Army Undersecretary became Acting SecArmy
- James McPherson: Army General Counsel became Acting Army Undersecretary
Mueller: I didn’t exonerate the president. As we type, erstwhile special counsel Robert Mueller is back on Capitol Hill, answering questions about his 448-page report that documented efforts by President Trump to obstruct justice by seeking to block the Russia investigation.
Currently: Mueller is testifying (watch on C-SPAN) before the House Judiciary Committee; at noon, he will testify to the House Intelligence Committee.
Key quote so far: “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” asked Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “No,” Mueller said, according to the Washington Post, which is live-blogging the hearing.
Reminder: Mueller’s investigation was launched “after the Intelligence Community released an assessment in January of 2017 that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election to try to help Trump win,” the Daily Beast recounts. “Then-FBI Director James Comey revealed the bureau was scrutinizing Trump World’s Russia ties. The disclosure enraged Trump, who then fired Comey,” a development that led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Along the way: “By the time he called it quits, his team had indicted more than 30 people and secured a host of guilty pleas, including from the president’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and from George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.”
In his report, Mueller said legal rules prevented him from recommending charges against the president, but also that the evidence has not exonerated him. More, here.
From Defense One
Esper Confirmed As Defense Secretary, Despite Opposition from Some 2020 Dems // Katie Bo Williams: Tuesday's 90-8 vote ends the longest period in history that the Defense Department has gone without a confirmed leader.
How AI Will Help Radar Detect Tiny Drones 3 Kilometers Away // Patrick Tucker: Small drones are becoming a big problem. Here’s how next-generation neural networking techniques could help.
Has Lockheed Replaced Boeing as Trump’s Favorite Defense Firm? // Marcus Weisgerber: The U.S. president and Lockheed’s CEO have been cheering each other on.
The Arguments for Weakening Encryption Aren't Any Better Under Trump // JHU professor Matthew R. Green: Law-enforcement backdoors would still make everyone less safe, even as U.S. officials set their sights on broader access to data.
Iran Is Acting Like the International Villain of Trump’s Prophecy // Mike Giglio, The Atlantic: Any number of relatively mundane scenarios now have the potential to escalate U.S.-Iran tensions—from a fire at a militia base to the seizure of an oil tanker to the signal-jamming of a drone.\
Smaller States are Choosing Sides in the Indian Ocean // IISS' Viraj Solanki and Antoine Levesques // From Sri Lanka to Kenya, governments try to balance major-power influence — except in arms purchases.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston (above) and Ben Watson (below). If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1911, U.S. academic Hiram Bingham III was the first American to discover the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru. Five years later, Bingham would become a captain in the Connecticut National Guard and began organizing Schools of Military Aeronautics at eight U.S. universities. He would eventually rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before passing away at his home at the age of 81. Bingham was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery (section 1, grave 357-A-B) in 1956.
President Trump’s Afghan war envoy had a “tense and confrontational” meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday, CNN’s Kylie Atwood reported. “Khalilizad was told Trump’s comments — Afghanistan would ‘be wiped off the face of the Earth’ if he wanted to win the war — were unacceptable.” According to CNN, “Afghan officials also told Khalilzad that Trump should show more respect for Ghani's leadership. The State Department declined to comment, but previously unplanned follow-up meetings will take place in Kabul on Wednesday.” More to all that, here.
Bulgaria’s president vetoed a plan to spend more than a billion dollars on F-16s from Lockheed Martin, Reuters reported, noting, “The $1.26 billion deal would [have been] the country’s biggest military purchase since the fall of Communism three decades ago."
Why nix the eight-jet plan? Due to “sharp disputes in parliament during the debate on [the plan’s] ratification,” according to Reuters. And that includes “prices, warranties, delivery times, penalties, indemnities, and so on,” the president said Tuesday.
For what it’s worth, “In 2017, an interim government selected the Gripen built by Sweden’s Saab but the deal was later canceled and a new procedure was launched a year later.”
Where to go from here? Maybe not far, since Reuters writes Bulgaria’s “Parliament could overrule [President Rumen] Radev’s veto with a vote of at least 121 votes in the 240-seat assembly.” Read on, here.
Germany’s new defense minister advises increased spending in order for Berlin to remain on “a reliable constantly growing path,” the Associated Press reports today from the German capital.
Context: “Germany’s military spending is expected to hit 1.35% of GDP this year, compared with 1.23% in 2018. However, a budget proposal earlier this year suggested that it would drop back again by 2023, angering the U.S.”
The new minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, "told lawmakers after being sworn in as defense minister that she is committed to aiming for the 2% target and Germany must reach 1.5% by 2024," AP writes.
And in a subtle reference to U.S. President Donald Trump, Kramp-Karrenbauer told lawmakers, “This is not about wishes from abroad, this is not about rearmament. It is about equipment and personnel.” Read on, here.
America is undermining global stability with its “power politics,” according to the Chinese defense ministry’s new white paper released today, AP reports from Beijing.
According to this new document, “The U.S. has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies,” China said in the document. “It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.”
The paper also went relatively light on Japan compared to previous documents, Japan Times reports.
Among the issues flagged as priorities are "containing 'Taiwan independence' and combat[ing] what it considers separatist forces in Tibet and the far west region of Xinjiang," AP writes.
On Taiwan, a defense ministry spox told reporters today, “If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will certainly fight, resolutely defending the country’s sovereign unity and territorial integrity.”
And on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan: “China resolutely opposes the wrong practices and provocative activities of the U.S. side regarding arms sales to Taiwan,” the document reads.
Here’s one Reuters headline for the new white paper: “China warns of war in case of move toward Taiwan independence”
Regarding Beijing’s power-projection efforts in and around the South China Sea, the paper insisted, “China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.”
Otherwise, China plans to bring its military to “world-class” status by 2035, well ahead of its previously stated goal of 2050: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
CNAS’s Elsa Kania spent the evening sipping whiskey and reading over the new white paper to deliver a series of takeaways on her Twitter feed today. Among them is a quick tally of key terms, including:
- Taiwan: four times;
- "Taiwan independence": seven times;
- United States gets 12 mentions;
- Cooperation is noted 69 times;
- Competition shows up seven times;
- “powerful military” makes a dozen appearances;
- Xi Jinping is named five times;
- social stability is mentioned six times;
- And counter-terrorism shows up in 17 different instances.
One top-line read by Kania: “These are some of the most explicit threats that I've seen on Taiwan, and the message is intended to be very clear: ‘The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.’”
Adds Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College: “It reflects Xi’s self-dictated era, strategy, goals, reforms, and rhetoric,” according to remarks in the Washington Post’s quick writeup of the paper. “I agree,” adds scholar and China-watcher Adam Ni on Twitter. “Very strong political message rather than anything we don't know re strategy.” Find the full text of the document on Erickson’s own website, here.
Speaking of China, “A high-profile Chinese fugitive — who belongs to President Donald Trump’s exclusive South Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, and has railed against China’s communist government — is accused of being a spy for that very regime,” the Miami Herald reported Tuesday citing “new documents filed in a federal court case in New York.”
The court docs first surfaced Friday when Washington-area research firm Strategic Vision US LLC submitted the claim to a Manhattan federal court, according to the Wall Street Journal, which appears to have broken this story on Monday.
The man at the center of the controversy: Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, "who made his money in real estate, has long promoted himself as a dissident being hunted by the Chinese government for his opposition to the ruling Chinese Communist Party," the Herald writes.
But according to federal court papers filed Friday, “Guo Wengui was, and is, a dissident-hunter, propagandist, and agent in the service of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party.”
Where suspicions began: “Mr. Guo asked [Strategic Vision] to investigate the financial history, social-media presence and travel details of a list of Chinese nationals he claimed were linked to top Chinese Communist Party officials,” the Journal writes. As a result of that work, “Strategic Vision said it concluded Mr. Guo was seeking information on Chinese nationals who may have been helping the U.S. government in national-security investigations or who were involved in other sensitive matters, according to the filing.”
One man at the periphery of this controversy: Steve Bannon and his newly formed “Committee on the Present Danger: China.”
For the record, Guo denies the spy claims, insisting Strategic Vision’s accusation “utterly lacks credibility.”
Where is Guo now? “Seeking political asylum in the United States,” the Herald writes, “where he reportedly avoided deportation by the Trump administration after the president learned Guo was a member of Mar-a-Lago.”
Bigger picture: “The allegations against Guo — that he’s some sort of double agent uncovering real dissidents for the Chinese government — come as the FBI continues to investigate possible Chinese espionage at Mar-a-Lago,” the Herald reports. “The ongoing federal probe gained new momentum when, on March 30, Yujing Zhang, a 33-year-old Chinese national, was arrested and charged with trespassing and lying to a federal agent after she tried to enter Mar-a-Lago with various cover stories.” The intrigue continues, here.
One more China-related case before a federal court: Four Chinese nationals were indicted Tuesday for using more than 20 front companies “to obscure illicit financial dealings on behalf of sanctioned North Korean entities that were involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The businesses were based in locations as far-flung as the British Virgin Islands, the Seychelles, Hong Kong, Wales, England, and Anguilla. “The defendants used these accounts to conduct U.S. dollar financial transactions through the U.S. banking system when completing sales to North Korea,” the DOJ writes.
Worth noting, according to Hofstra’s Julian Ku: “much of the alleged criminal conduct occurred during 2009-2015. Interesting that the indictment was not brought before now.” All four men are believed to reside somewhere in China. More from the DOJ’s charges, here.
In other DOJ news Tuesday, Flynn Intel Group’s founder was convicted “of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government [Turkey], conspiring to make false statements and willful omissions in a FARA filing, and acting as an agent of a foreign government… in a conspiracy to covertly influence United States politicians and public opinion against a Turkish national, Fethullah Gulen, who is living in the United States.”
Involved: Bijan Rafiekian, 67, of San Juan Capistrano, California, along with his co-conspirator, Kamil Ekim Alptekin, 42, of Istanbul, “a Turkish national with close ties to the highest levels of the Government of Turkey,” according to the DOJ.
If this story sounds familiar to Defense One readers, it’s because of Patrick Tucker’s reporting back in March 2017. Catch up on that backstory, here; then finish it out with the Department of Justice’s Tuesday update, here.
And finally today: The U.S. military has experienced nearly a 60% increase in heat casualties over the past decade, according to a lengthy feature report Tuesday from NBC News and InsideClimate News. The two outlets’ goal: “spen[d] the last nine months investigating heat deaths and heat-related illnesses in the military and the Pentagon’s uneven efforts to safeguard service members.”
Among their findings: “In 2008, 1,766 cases of heatstroke or heat exhaustion were diagnosed among active-duty service members, according to military data. By 2018, that figure had climbed to 2,792, an increase of almost 60 percent over the decade. All branches of the military saw an increase in heat-related illnesses, but the problem was most pronounced in the Marine Corps, which saw the rate of heatstrokes more than double from 2008 to 2018, according to military data.”
Which bases have experienced the most heat injuries? Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and MCB Camp Lejeune/Cherry Point, N.C., top a list of 15 tallied according to Defense Health Agency data. More to this story, here.
In case you missed it, catch our 45-minute podcast on climate change vs. the U.S. military (from late March) here. Then check our June update on which military bases are most threatened by climate change over here.