Two more Americans die in Afghanistan; SecDef: China is top priority; CNO, departing; Trump threatens to release ISIS fighters; And a bit more.

Two American service members died Wednesday in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led Resolute Support command announced in a very short statement. “Later, a U.S. official said the two service members died in combat from small-arms fire without providing further information,” AP reported in a brief follow-up. The names of the deceased have not yet been released, pending notification of the next of kin. 

If indeed the two died in combat, they will be the 13th and 14th U.S. service members killed from hostile fire of some kind in 2019. And overall, 18 Americans have passed away (including those from suicide) in Afghanistan this calendar year.

"China is the number one priority for this department,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox’s Jennifer Griffin in his first televised interview since assuming his new job in President Trump’s cabinet. "They are clearly professionalizing and expanding the capacity and capabilities of the military in order to push the United States out of [the Indo-Pacific] theater," he continued. 

Echoing the tenets of the National Defense Strategy, Esper told Griffin, he wants the department to pivot away from “low-intensity conflict that lasts 18 years” (i.e., Afghanistan) and to “high-intensity conflicts against competitors such as Russia and China.”

As for other topics Esper noted, we’ll review them here in a lightning round: 

  • Esper wants “A.I.-based, hypersonics, robotics, directed energy” weapons;
  • Esper wants “a Space Command that would be responsible for the space war-fight;”
  • He acknowledged the Russians are “trying to expand their strategic nuclear arsenal;”
  • He also sees no end in sight to “malign Russian cyber activity;”
  • He expects more “North Korean cyber activity and Chinese cyber activity;” Read on at Fox, here

From Defense One

The A-10 Warthog Is Sticking Around for At Least Another Decade // Marcus Weisgerber: After years of trying to retire the much-in-demand attack jet, the Air Force is putting new wings on 112 more planes.

Trump Threatens to ‘Release’ ISIS Fighters into France, Germany // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The president wants European governments to repatriate and try citizens being held by Syrian resistance forces.

It’s Time for a NATO-China Council // Barry Pavel and Ian Brzezinski: Such a group would help to collectively engage Beijing, which prefers to deal with countries in isolation.

Defense One Radio, Ep. 54: Defense Intelligence Agency’s Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley // Defense One Staff: The general answered 10 questions about Afghanistan, China, North Korea and more.

Trump Has Defected from the Free World // Thomas Wright, The Atlantic: The president crossed an important line when he canceled a meeting with the Danish prime minister.

DHS is Collecting Biometrics on Thousands of Refugees Who Will Never Enter the US // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: Most refugees who apply for asylum never set foot in the United States, but a UN agreement allows DHS and its partners to build biometric profiles on them.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that...I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

CNO, departing. As Adm. John Richardson turns over the Navy’s highest job to Adm. Michael Gilday at the Navy Yard today,’s Hope Hodge Seck offers a good look at the departing CNO’s rocky tenure. 
Great power seer. The only person to command both the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion program and the Navy itself, Richardson gets kudos for helping to reorient not just his service but the entire Pentagon toward great power competition. He championed a 355-ship fleet, until the advance of unmanned technologies (and likely, the political challenge of finding the money) led him to conclude that the Navy needs more capability — not necessarily more gray hulls. 
Leadership vacuum. Hodge Seck also notes that the Navy’s leadership ranks have been thinned by 1) the Fat Leonard corruption scandal, 2) two summer 2017 collisions of destroyers, and 3) the last-minute withdrawal of CNO-to-be Adm. Bill Moran. She might have added that Richardson’s own appointment as CNO hinged on the Fat Leonard scandal; as the Navy’s top nuc and bureaucratically distant from tarnish, he was among those chosen to lead the investigation. Read on, here.
CNO, arriving. Gilday, the incoming chief, is a career surface warfare officer who brings unprecedented cyber experience to the top job. From 2016-18, he led 10th Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command the Navy’s component of U.S. Cyber Command. He also survived a mine blast, as a junior officer aboard the cruiser Princeton, in 1991.
Deep-selected. Gilday, who currently directs the Joint Staff, is also the rare CNO picked as a three-star. Mark Faram, late of Navy Times, takes a look at his career, here.

The Pentagon just cancelled its multi-billion dollar Boeing missile defense program, effective today, so that it can “kick off a new effort to build a modernized generation of ballistic missile interceptors,” Breaking Defense’s Paul McLeary reported Wednesday. 
Dead: The Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, “an ambitious, $5.8 billion technology program led by Boeing — though Raytheon actually builds the Kill Vehicles — to improve on the current Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle, or EKV. Both are ground-based interceptors designed to defend the US mainland against long-range ballistic missile attacks.”
In its place: Unclear; but, McLeary writes, “Boeing and Raytheon will likely be involved due to their long history in missile defense.” 
“Ending the program was the responsible thing to do,” said Michael Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, in a statement. “After exercising due diligence, we decided the path we’re going down wouldn’t be fruitful, so we’re not going down that path anymore.” Bloomberg has a bit more, here

South Korea is dropping its military intelligence sharing pact with Japan, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning from the two countries. “The arrangement,” known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, “advocated by the U.S. to bolster regional security, was scheduled soon to renew automatically for another year. But on Thursday, South Korea said it was scrapping the deal, saying Japan had arbitrarily accused Seoul of being a national security concern.”
Behind all this: “a move by Japan in July to tighten export controls on three materials crucial for South Korean companies to produce semiconductors and displays, and a subsequent move to revoke Seoul’s preferential-trading-partner status.”
Worth noting: “The pullout comes despite requests from Washington and Tokyo to remain in the deal.”
The news also comes amid a three-day trip to China by Tokyo and Seoul’s foreign ministers — and as U.S. envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun dropped by South Korea for meetings with officials there. More from the Nikkei Asian Review, here

ICYMI: Japanese officials say North Korea has miniaturized nuclear weapons. In case this sounds familiar — the Defense Intelligence Agency posited a very similar conclusion two years ago — MIT’s Vipin Narang told Reuters in a paraphrased excerpt, “North Korea’s ability to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit on its ballistic missiles has been widely accepted for several years, but the Japanese report highlights the lack of progress on denuclearisation talks aimed at curtailing the program.” A bit more from Reuters here

Putin says “a promising weapon system” is what exploded in northern Russia this month, killing at least five Russians who the Russian president hailed as doing “extremely important work to ensure the security of our state,” the Wall Street Journal reports
Background: "Russia has released little information about the accident, which occurred near the Nenoksa military base on the White Sea’s southern shore. That base has been used for decades to conduct missile tests, the Journal writes. "Four days after the blast, the scars from the explosion were still visible in recently released photos taken by the commercial satellite firm Maxar Technologies. Apparent scorch marks and debris were seen on a damaged barge off the coast, where the accident took place." A bit more, here
Related: The top uniformed officials in the U.S. and Russian militaries chatted by phone on Wednesday. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. spoke with Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov about "issues of mutual concern... In accordance with past practice, both have agreed to keep the specific details of their conversation private." Not much else to glean from that release, but you can read the rest for yourself, here
Also: Russia, China want a U.N. Security Council meeting today about America’s post-INF missile developments, Reuters reports

About China: Documents just unveiled in a court case in Canada tie Huawei to Iran, Syria and Sudan — and they describe curious banking links by the Chinese telecom. Details here

Virginia Tech just received an award from the Pentagon for “counterintelligence,” the university announced Tuesday. What kind of counterintelligence work are we talking about here? According to Va. Tech’s release, it involved “the Office of Export and Secure Research Compliance, which supports Virginia Tech’s commitment to comply with U.S. laws and regulations related to export and trade sanctions.”
That’s not terribly revealing, but we are talking about intelligence work here. Apparently the award concerned more than 80 “reports of highly suspicious activity… related to foreign efforts to target the United States and university technology.” Out of some 81 Virginia Tech-generated reports, 77 resulted in “intelligence information reports.” 
“The government can’t alone protect our technology,” said Carrie Wibben, deputy director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. Which is why “Partnering between government, industry, and academia is critical to our national security.” More here

The U.S. military is expanding its little-known Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the Washington Post reported Wednesday on location. In short, “U.S. officials are cautious about the language they use to describe the work at the site, dubbing it an upgrade, while Qatari officials call it an expansion. Though there have been no plans announced to send more troops to the base, it could accommodate considerably more than the 10,000 here on any given day.”
And to give you an indication of why this base is so key to the Defense Department, the Post reminds us that “The United States now faces five major challenges in the region,” including “the conflict in Afghanistan; tensions with Iran; the threat posed by the remains of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; the precarious situation in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are in control; and the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is supported by the United States.”
You may be wondering about that Saudi and Emirati blockade of Qatar right about now; the Post reports that blockade is still happening, and Qatar, which still maintains ties with Iran, has “used the blockade to strengthen its military relationship with the United States.”
In fact, “Qatar is not only allowing the expansion, but also funding it and managing the construction, at a price tag estimated as high as $1.8 billion.” Read on, here

President Trump is a big fan of a new medication to help curb veteran suicides called Spravato. However, “even the [Department of Veterans Affairs] isn’t sure about the drug” since the VA’s “medical advisory panel voted in June not to include Spravato on the list of VA-approved medications,” McClatchy’s Tara Copp reported
What is this stuff? “Spravato is a nasal spray that is intended to treat depression in cases where the patient has not improved under other antidepressant drugs or treatments. The cost for one dose of Spravato is $295, patients will typically require 2.5 nasal spray units per treatment for a cost per day of $737.50.” 
Why we’re hearing about Spravato this week: Trump told veterans Wednesday at the 75th annual national convention of American Veterans in Louisville, Ky., that he’s “instructed the head of the VA to go out and buy a lot of [Spravato]. And we are buying a lot of it… I’ve instructed the top officials to go out and get as much of it as you can from Johnson & Johnson," Trump said. “They have made so much money. I think they should give it to us for free.”
However, Copp cautions in her report, “The Food and Drug Administration greenlighted Spravato in March, despite concerns that were published in a final rule on Aug. 16, including that in testing the drug had a higher rate of adverse effects than drugs currently available, and that testing did not appear to show that Spravato had a higher rate of successful treatment.” More to the story, here

This week in over-the-top things that the president says, Trump told that crowd of veterans in Louisville that he wanted to give himself the Medal of Honor. His remarks, during a brief recognition of WWII veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams at the AMVET convention, strike your D-Brief-ers as nearly standard fare for Trump in front of veterans and members of the military; which is to say, he often seems to relish coming across as avuncular, at times playfully scatterbrained and, perhaps above all, approachable to these audiences. Politico has more from Louisville, including the not-so-subtle aside that “Trump never served in the military and was granted five draft deferments — four for college and one for bone spurs,” here

And finally: This week we learned that fake news can actually lead to false memories, especially if the “news” comports with previously-held political convictions. That’s the takeaway from new research recently published in Psychological Science.
Why this matters to us: “Fake news is likely to have similar effects in other political contexts, including the US presidential race in 2020,” the Association for Psychological Science warns in its review of the findings. 
Said the lead author of the study, Gillian Murphy of University College Cork: “In highly emotional, partisan political contests, such as the 2020 US Presidential election, voters may ‘remember’ entirely fabricated news stories. In particular, they are likely to ‘remember’ scandals that reflect poorly on the opposing candidate.” Read on, here.