At NATO, SecDef talks Taliban, Huawei; War on autopilot; SOCOM’s next plane; Coronavirus reporting soars; And a bit more.

The U.S. military thinks seven days is enough to assess the Taliban’s seriousness about pursuing peace in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters this morning (afternoon local time) at NATO HQs in Brussels. His remarks followed a two-day meeting with fellow alliance defense ministers. Catch the full event on DVIDS, here

The SecDef’s mission involved selling allies on a possible seven-day plan to reduce violence in Afghanistan, as well as an escalated NATO training effort in Iraq; he also tried to sell the alliance on “the China challenge,” including “the long-term risks of economic and commercial choices they make — particularly regarding the integration of Chinese telecommunications into European infrastructure,” not unlike the UK’s recent decision on Huawei 5G integration about two weeks ago. 

Asked if he really thought seven days was enough to accurately gauge the Taliban’s seriousness about reducing violence, Esper replied, “It is our view that seven days for now is sufficient. But in all things, our approach to this process will be conditions-based. Let me say it again: conditions-based. So it will be a continual, evaluative process as we go forward. If we go forward.” (h/t AP’s Bob Burns for the question.)

In case you were curious, some NATO countries have agreed to add more troops to Iraq; but Esper declined to elaborate, saying only that “The short answer is yes, but I’ll leave it up to you to figure out who they are. It’s up to them to make their own announcements.”

Esper also defended the White House’s budget plan to zero out funding for Stars and Stripes, saying higher priority military programs need U.S. taxpayer money (totalling $15.5 million) in 2021. Esper’s full remarks on that question: “As I went into this [budgetary] process, the first thing I did was to stand up the defense-wide review to find at least $5 billion to put into our modernization priorities. Space. The nuclear triad. Hypersonics. A variety of systems. As we went through that, we looked at about $100 billion worth of programs and activities, some in various degrees of return on investment, some in various degrees of priority. At the end of the day that was not a priority that met the cut line, and so we trimmed the support for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher priority issues.”

From the pen of former Stripes scribe Kevin Baron, Defense One Executive Editor: "Here we go again. Every group of political operatives that comes into the Pentagon at some point can't resist the urge to eliminate the one thing they can't control: Stars and Stripes. Look, every media outlet should evolve with the times, but Stripes' mission is unique, to deliver First Amendment journalism free of government censorship or influence to deployed U.S. troops wherever they are. Anyone who has ever been to a base or outpost in conflict zones can still tell you that cell phones and computer terminals are no replacement. Neither is swapping Stripes for private news media who are beholden to clicks, revenue, ad dollars, subscriptions, or anything other than the mission Congress protected decades ago. If the Pentagon is serious about saving money in the $700 billion Defense Department, the solution is not to cut the one source of information American G.I.s can trust. Trump's Pentagon team is proposing to cut the entire annual subsidy to Stripes, which would threaten the newspaper's survival. That's a helluva price to pay for what amounts to about four or five Patriot missiles."

From Defense One

War on Autopilot? It Will Be Harder Than the Pentagon Thinks // Patrick Tucker: Despite defense contractors’ glittering demonstrations, difficult realities are challenging the military’s race to network everything.

Here’s What Special Operators Want From Their New Light Attack Plane // Patrick Tucker: In short: something they can start flying right now.

DOD Nominee Who Questioned Ukraine Aid Holdup Denies Report About Her Ouster // Katie Bo Williams: A story from the New York Post ignited speculation that Elaine McCusker’s nomination could be withdrawn. It’s not clear that’s the case.

Trump’s Former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, Finally Lets Loose / Peter Nicholas: The retired Marine general explained, in the clearest terms yet, his misgivings about Trump’s behavior regarding North Korea, immigration, and Ukraine.

How a Stock Bubble Could Unwind America’s National Security // Naval War College’s Sam J. Tangredi: Tesla’s astronomic rise portends a crash that will add heft to the forces of deglobalization.

The Sanders Doctrine // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: The presidential candidate wants to redefine American power.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, the allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, begins. 

The coronavirus count has soared after a change in accounting. NPR: “Now, patients will be included who exhibit all the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — including fever, cough and shortness of breath — but have either not been tested or tested negative for the virus itself.” The change — in Hubei province alone so far — likely reflects a shortage of test kits for the virus, NPR wrote, here.
The worldwide count passed 60,000 under the new accounting, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard.
The shift has “made it next to impossible to track [the] coronavirus trend,” tweets Economist journo Simon Rabinovitch, who has a must-see graph of daily new cases in Hubei.
Vaccine, this fall? It used to take a decade or more to make a vaccine, but gene-sequencing tools have scientists optimistic that they can achieve a first: create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus fast enough to help stop its first outbreak. NPR, here.

Russia is upset the U.S. Air Force wanted to land some C-130s on Norway’s island airbase at Jan Mayen in the North Atlantic back in November, Reuters reports today. 
Context: “Tensions have been rising in the energy-producing Arctic as climate change has opened up the region, and Russia has built up its own military presence there and touted the potential of the Northern Sea Route across its northern flank.”
So why complain now? It’s probably related to a recent episode just this month when “Moscow accused Norway of restricting its activities on the archipelago of Svalbard, a remote chain of islands in the Arctic, and said it wanted talks with Oslo to have the issue resolved.”
“You need to calm down,” is essentially what Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen replied, telling parliament (according to Reuters) that "planes from military forces from Austria, Sweden, Denmark and France had flown to Jan Mayen between 2017 and 2019." Read on, here

Happening tomorrow: the 2020 Munich Security Conference, which will involve U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, AP reports in a preview. 
Predictions: "Pompeo and Esper are to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the conference on Friday.” And SecState Pompeo "has as many as 10 separate meetings with foreign officials and a speech crammed into his two-day visit," which involves further trying to convince European allies to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. More, here.

Apropos of nothing, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said last night, “The media, in my view, and I feel very strongly about this, is not the enemy of the people.” The retired four-star general was speaking before a crowd Wednesday evening at the Mayor Performing Arts Center in Morristown, N.J. “We need a free media,” Kelly said in public remarks that spanned a variety of topics. “That said, you have to be careful about what you are watching and reading, because the media has taken sides. So if you only watch Fox News, because it's reinforcing what you believe, you are not an informed citizen.”
Other topics included: 

  • U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. “He did exactly what we teach them to do, from cradle to grave: He told his boss." The National Security Council Ukraine expert was ousted last week in reprisal for his testimony against Trump.
  • Former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who "Was not a guy that represents our military in any way, shape or form,” Kelly said. “The idea that the commander in chief intervened there, in my opinion, was exactly the wrong thing to do,” he added. 
  • North Korea, whose leader, Kelly said, “will never give his nuclear weapons up.” This is also the broad consensus of the nuclear-policy world, although the Trump administration continues to insist, against all evidence, that Kim Jong-Un promised to do so.

Read more at New Jersey’s Daily Record, here; or at Defense One (via The Atlantic), here

And lastly today: There's been record heat in Antarctica. The mercury hit nearly 65 degrees last week, “breaking the previous record of 63.5 degrees set on March 24, 2015, according to Argentina’s National Meteorological Service. The station has been recording temperatures since 1961,” the New York Times reported.
And carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a new high, with more than 416 parts per million measured Monday at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory. That’s up from about 325 in 1970.
For context: Maybe you’ve heard people say, “The climate is always changing”? Scroll through this xkcd cartoon to see how recent changes are far different from past ones.