Esper’s trouble uniting Pacific allies; Fiona Hill takes the Hill; What the US gives Ukraine’s military; Pentagon demands a retraction; And a bit more.

We now know a bit more about the two Americans killed in Afghanistan Wednesday in Logar province. The Defense Department says today they were two warrant officers from Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division, and they died “when their helicopter crashed while providing security for troops on the ground.” 

Their names are Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Knadle, 33, from Tarrant, Texas; and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kirk Fuchigami Jr., 25, from Keaau, Hawaii. Both were with the 1st Cavalry’s 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.

The Taliban claimed to have shot down the helicopter and killed “54 invaders and hirelings”; the Defense Department said Wednesday “preliminary reports do not indicate [the crash] was caused by enemy fire.” And this morning, the department adds only that “The incident is under investigation.” 

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the International Red Cross “facilitated the release of 10 Afghan security force members detained by the Taliban and handed them over to Afghan authorities” in Helmand province, Reuters reports after the “Afghan Taliban on Tuesday of American and Australian university professors held hostage for more than three years, raising hopes for a revival of peace talks.” Tiny bit more, here.

From Defense One

Special Operations Command Is Experimenting With Bullets That Shoot Through Water // Patrick Tucker: The supercavitating round might allow Navy SEALs to open fire before they break the surface.

To Deter China, Deepen the US-Indian Partnership // Richard Rossow and Hemath K. Singh: Here are some ideas for the upcoming 2+2 defense and foreign affairs ministerial conference.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Kevin Baron. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1986, Lt. Col. Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, started “shredding documents that would have exposed their participation in a range of illegal activities” related to the Iran-Contra scandal. North was fired four days later, and was eventually “convicted of shredding documents, obstruction of justice, and illegally receiving a security fence for his own residence,” as recalls.

The Pentagon says the U.S. is not “currently considering removing any troops from the Korean Peninsula,” and South Korea’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper should retract its story suggesting as much. That’s from Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who added, “Secretary Esper was in South Korea this past week where he repeatedly reiterated our ironclad commitment to the ROK and its people. News stories such as this expose the dangerous and irresponsible flaws of single anonymous source reporting. We are demanding the Chosun Ilbo immediately retract their story.”

SecDef Esper is having trouble uniting allies “in Asia for a unified response to Chinese aggression,” the Wall Street Journal reports off the SecDef’s recent trip to the Pacific region. “Partly at issue, experts said, is the U.S.’s pursuit of competing goals. While seeking to strengthen alliances, it is also being more aggressive on issues that previous American administrations approached more gingerly, including the demands for allies to pay more in military cost-sharing.” Read on for more from Esper’s trip to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand, here
About that no-exercises-for-peace plan, Esper told reporters “he does not regret postponing a U.S.-South Korean military air exercise, even though the gesture was rejected by North Korea as not enough to restart nuclear diplomacy,” AP reports traveling with the SecDef.
Also: China claims the U.S. is the aggressor in the South China Sea. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told Esper on Monday the U.S. needs to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and to not provoke and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” Reuters reported from Bangkok.
Pentagon reax: “Secretary Esper pointedly reiterated that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows - and we will encourage and protect the rights of other sovereign nations to do the same,” per Hoffman. More here
And find more deep background on tensions in and around the South China Sea from our two-part Defense One Radio podcast on the subject, here and here

Fiona Hill: Enough with the lies about Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election, says former White House Russia analyst Fiona Hill. Hill is asking U.S. lawmakers to “please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” according to her opening remarks in today’s House impeachment hearings. Hill is testifying today along with David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. More on Holmes’ background from the New York Times, here.
Said Hill in her remarks, “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Added Hill: “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
Where Hill’s warning fits in the info wars over impeachment: “Some Republicans have advanced the Ukraine election interference talking point as they seek to defend Trump from allegations that he pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate Democrats and rival Joe Biden as he was withholding military aide,” AP reports
Gordon Sondland, Trump’s million-dollar donor-ambassador to the EU made enormous waves on Wednesday, telling lawmakers in his opening remarks, “Was there a ‘quid pro quo’? With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.” The rest, he said, was obvious: “Two plus two equals four,” and “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.” 
Exonerated? Trump supporters focused on the part where Sondland said he had no direct orders from the president or ever heard him say to execute any quid pro quo, and the White House press secretary blasted out a statement with the subject line, “Ambassador Sondland Completely Exonerates President Trump of Any Wrongdoing.”
What’s more, “another witness undercut a main Republican argument — that Ukraine didn’t even realize the money was being held up,” AP writes. And that person was the Defense Department’s Laura Cooper, who “testified that Ukrainian officials started asking about [the held-up aide] on July 25, which was the day of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, when he first asked for a ‘favor.’” 
Said Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday: “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.” More from AP, here. Or tune in to the Wall Street Journal’s running analysis of today’s developments, here.

What the U.S. gives Ukraine’s military often means “the difference between life and death,” AP reports from Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk Oblast. The U.S.-made items include medical equipment, night-vision devices and counter-mortar radar. “Every little bit of assistance helps in the World War I-style trenches of Avdiivka,” AP writes, “where conscripts and volunteer soldiers use shovels to shore up mud walls, chop wood for makeshift stoves, and cook their own food from local vegetables and canned supplies.”
That’s why, “when $400 million in U.S. military aid to Kyiv was held up this year, Ukrainians got nervous,” especially around Avdiivka, which is “strategically located near the airport of regional capital Donetsk and home to Ukraine’s main coke and chemical plant.” 
Another fear for Ukrainian soldiers now amid the inquiries and testimony in Washington: “That the U.S. impeachment drama has weakened Zelenskiy so much that he’ll cede too much to Russian President Vladimir Putin in peace talks in Paris next month.” Much more from Andiivka, here.

There are more than 400 U.S. military installations where “groundwater and drinking water has been contaminated by cancer-linked PFAS chemicals found in firefighting foam,” McClatchy’s Tara Copp reports. And now that number is expected to rise based on the findings of “an interim report on the issue that is expected to go to Defense Secretary Mark Esper next week… with a final report to be distributed to the public in late December or early January.”
One big way that number could change: National Guard sites could increase the current count of 401 contaminated installations. Read on for more — including a chart of military base data, “which is searchable by state, military base, service and the extent of contamination” — here.

Fallout continues for “the deadliest maritime accident in modern Navy history,” ProPublica reported Tuesday in a follow-up on the deadly crash of the USS Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017, southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. 
The quick summary: “Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson accepted responsibility for the deadly crash of the USS Fitzgerald and was told, “That’s done now.” But when another ship crashed, the Navy decided it wasn’t through with him. Its pursuit nearly destroyed him and his family.” The #LongRead begins, here.

It’s time to re-think how Pentagon planners make decisions, two analysts at the Center for a New American Security write. Susanna V. Blume and Molly Parrish just released a report entitled "Make Good Choices, DoD: Optimizing Core Decisionmaking Processes for Great-Power Competition.” 
Cutting to the chase, they write, “this report is about how the U.S. Department of Defense can adjust its decisionmaking processes to more effectively compete with China," which "has spent the past 25 years studying the American way of war, systemically developing effective ways to counter most of the United States’ traditional military advantages, and investing heavily in developing and fielding these new capabilities." Read on for their proposals, here.

And finally today, in Trump vs. the U.S. Navy news, POTUS45 is apparently quite upset over NYTs reporting Tuesday that the U.S. Navy was about to eject the SEAL he pardoned for war crimes last week. According to the Times, SEAL commander, Rear Adm. Collin Green "has the authorization he needs from the Navy to act against Chief Gallagher, and the formal letter notifying the chief of the action has been drafted by the admiral.”  
Tweeted Trump this morning: “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
Now what? Task & Purpose reports “Navy officials deferred questions about Trump's tweet to the White House.” A bit more background from T&P, here.