Esper knocks China; The problem with COVID models; China accused of nuclear testing; Air Force Ones’s pricey repair manual; And a bit more.

SecDef Esper goes on morning TV to knock China. “They’ve been misleading us, they’ve been opaque if you will from the early days of this virus. So I don’t have much faith that they’re even being truthful with us now,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today of China’s transparency amid the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. Esper was speaking to NBC’s “Today” show where he brought a message of skepticism toward information coming out of entities controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. The defense secretary’s remarks come after a few weeks of apparent recovery for China, and it continues a gradual rhetorical decoupling of the U.S.-China relationship that has widened under the Trump administration. 

Other notable input from Esper:

  • Did China create the virus in a lab? "The majority of views right now are that it was natural. It was organic,” the secretary said. This echoes comments this week from the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley.
  • "Does a pandemic like this constitute a threat to national security?" asked NBC's Savannah Guthrie. "Well, it can be," Esper said. But he speaks with his combatant commanders twice a week and said he’s comfortable with the U.S. military’s pandemic mitigation measures so far.
  • And what about U.S. military readiness? Just this week there’s been North Korean missile tests (Tuesday), a Russian aircraft intercept (Wednesday) and Iranian antagonism at sea (also on Wednesday). “This is a normal week for DOD,” Esper said. “I’m fully confident that we are 100% ready to deal with any threats, any adversaries that are out there.” (More on that latter two episodes below the fold.)
  • And about U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier’s investigation and possible reinstatement: "It concluded late last week. It's now with the Navy,” Esper told NBC, adding, “I've got to keep an open mind with regard to everything.” (More on the possible reinstatement from the New York Times on Wednesday, here; or at NBC today, here.)

Speaking of USS Theodore Roosevelt: Navy officials now think the coronavirus likely arrived on the aircraft carrier with aircrews flying on and off, not during the ship’s port visit in Vietnam, the Wall Street Journal reports


From Defense One

SPECIAL REPORT: The Problem With Coronavirus Models Is How We Talk About Them // Patrick Tucker: Despite what political leaders want them to say, COVID-19 models will become less predictive exactly when we need them most.

The Owner’s Manual for Trump’s New Air Force One Cost $84 Million / Marcus Weisgerber: The Air Force quietly announced that Boeing’s manuals for Trump’s new $5.3 billion presidential jets are a bit pricier than your average automobile-repair guides.

Don't Be Fooled. Trump’s Cuts to WHO Aren’t About the Coronavirus // Kevin Baron: Republicans have been hating on international organizations for decades. This is just a convenient excuse to take another shot, and it harms American security.

The Coronavirus Shows How US ‘Diplomacy’ Is Anything But / Bonnie Kristian: Absolutist, America-first approaches isolate us and make us less safe.

Pentagon IG: We Can’t Rule Out White House Influence on JEDI Award // Frank R. Konkel, Nextgov: A 300-page investigation reveals multiple ethics violations and a refusal by Defense Department General Counsel to let senior officials comment on communications with the White House.

Pentagon Isn't Following the Cyber Steps It Asks from Suppliers, GAO Says // Mariam Baksh, Nextgov: The Defense Department has yet to fully implement multiple initiatives to track and improve cyber defenses.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, the U.S. Army liberated the Nazi's high-security prisoner camp Oflag IV-C, at the 1,000-year-old Colditz Castle. As AP recalls, “The Germans called Colditz escape-proof, but 120 of its 400 prisoners broke out and 35 made it to freedom.”


Eleven Iranian boats harassed U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf, U.S. Central Command says. The Iranian Revolutionary National Guard crews operated the boats in an “unsafe” and “unprofessional” manner, “repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the U.S. vessels at extremely close range and high speeds” on Tuesday. 
At least one came within 10 yards of the Coast Guard cutter Maui, and another came within 50 yards of the expeditionary mobile base vessel Lewis B. Puller. Other U.S. vessels in the area included the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Paul Hamilton, Cyclone-class coastal patrol boat Firebolt, Cyclone-class patrol ship Sirocco, and Coast Guard cutter Wrangell.
The interaction comes almost exactly 32 years since the U.S. Navy sank more than a half-dozen Iranian vessels in Operation Praying Mantis.
Meanwhile, over the Med: A Russian Su-35 combat jet flew unsafely near and in front of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea, the Navy’s 6th Fleet says. The Russian jet did “high-speed, inverted maneuver, 25 ft. directly in front of the mission aircraft, which put our pilots and crew at risk. The crew of the P-8A reported wake turbulence following the interaction.”  The interaction lasted about 42 minutes.

Evolving mission for the USNS Mercy. As regional workload stabilizes, the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship on the West Coast, the USNS Mercy, could scale back its operations as early as next week, the Associated Press reports after interviewing the ship’s commander, Navy Capt. John Rotruck. 
Behind the seemingly welcome change of plans: “Two weeks ago, California officials were planning for a potential crush of coronavirus cases that by mid-May that could require adding up to 66,000 additional hospital beds,” AP writes. “The Mercy was part of the ramp-up effort, but since then, hospitalizations have leveled off and ample rooms are available.”
Bigger picture for the LA area: “Many of the worst outbreaks now occurring are in nursing facilities, and some are having staffing issues as workers are infected or stay home.” Which is why “The Mercy will also send about 40 medical staff to a regional skilled nursing facility on Monday,” Rotruck told AP. 
Worth noting: Elderly patients would not be brought onboard the ship, whose crew is still overcoming a small outbreak of the virus after seven crewmembers tested positive COVID-19 “and about 112 were taken off the ship and quarantined because they had contact with someone who tested positive.” Read on, here.
FWIW: America has a National Center for Medical Intelligence and it’s located in Fort Detrick, Md. As you might imagine from the facility’s title, what they do is classified. But today the AP fills us in on what we can know — beyond how the center did not issue any warnings about the coronavirus until Feb. 25, which was still 15 days before the WHO declared a pandemic — here

In smarter social media news, Facebook says it will “start notifying users who had engaged with false posts about COVID-19 which could cause physical harm, such as drinking bleach to cure the virus, and connect them to accurate information,” Reuters reports this morning. This is a problem because the company said it’s suddenly found itself “battling to control large volumes of misinformation such as posts that say physical distancing will not curb the disease.”
Facebook says it has hosted “40 million dubious posts related to the virus” from 4,000 articles just in the month of March. More from Facebook on the changes, here.

U.S. alleges China may have resumed low-yield nuclear tests, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday, citing an upcoming State Department report that asserts but provides no evidence of tests at China’s Lop Nur nuclear test site throughout 2019. Read, here.
Arms Control Wonk’s take: “It is worth noting how thin the evidence is for these claims,” tweets Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Russia is suspected of conducting similar tests last year. 2019 article by WSJ, here.
The United States, of course, has begun production of a new low-yield nuclear warhead and has begun spending hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade all three legs of its nuclear triad.

And finally today: Russia just carried out an anti-satellite test, Gen. John Raymond of the U.S. Space Force said Wednesday. Officially, Russia seems to have conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite — or, “DA-ASAT” — missile test, though Raymond’s comments and the press release from U.S. Space Command did not elaborate. According to Reuters, however, “The test was of Russia’s new Nudol anti-satellite missile system, analysts projected, launching from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome about 800 km (497 miles) north of Moscow.”
The U.S. release also noted the recent odd satellite behavior from Russia’s machines in orbit, specifically the “nesting doll” duo of COSMOS 2542 and COSMOS 2543, which was a case of one satellite separating into two (Newsweek) after orbiting the Earth for two weeks.
According to Raymond, “This [Wednesday] test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs,” he said in his Wednesday statement. “Space is critical to all nations and our way of life. The demands on space systems continue in this time of crisis where global logistics, transportation and communication are key to defeating the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a shared interest and responsibility of all spacefaring nations to create safe, stable and operationally sustainable conditions for space activities, including commercial, civil and national security activities.”
ICYMI: Now would be a good time to catch our March podcast episode all about “war in space,” which you can listen to or read the transcript of right here.

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