Today's D Brief: Deadly helo crash; What’s with the Pentagon churn?; 400K COVID deaths predicted; Navy’s ghost ship; And a bit more.

Developing: Helo crash in the Sinai leaves six Americans dead, along with two other allied soldiers — one from France and another from the Czech Republic. 

Worth noting: “At this point, there is no information to indicate the crash was anything except an accident,” officials from the Multinational Force and Observers, where the troops were based, said in a statement this morning. 

One U.S. service member appears to have survived the crash, and he or she has been medically evacuated, MFO said. 

President Trump’s new acting defense secretary flew on a secretive mission last month to try to negotiate with al-Shabaab extremists from Somalia. However, the then-NCTC director left Secretary of State Mike Pompeo out of the plan, and as a result, the whole project fell apart, Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported Wednesday.

Why this matters: Miller’s "previously unreported trip to Qatar offers insight into the acting secretary’s mind-set," Savage and Schmitt write. That's because “The awkward shuttering of the effort was an embarrassing outcome for the U.S. government, in part because Qatar’s emir had already apparently given his approval to explore Mr. Miller’s proposal.”

But perhaps more importantly, this trip “could also portend the kind of last-ditch initiatives or operations, whether overt or covert, that Mr. Trump and his top aides might pursue during his last weeks in office.” Continue reading, here.

One very big question right now: With former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, former Acting Defense Undersecretary for Policy James Anderson, and others abruptly fired this week, why is Trump replacing key Pentagon leaders with less than 70 days left in his presidency? The short answer is nobody knows precisely why just yet. As NPR’s Phil Ewing put it, “Our baseline resting level of insanity now is so high that the White House can decapitate and re-staff the Department of Defense without any formal discussion as to why or its objectives.”

What we’ve witnessed could just be “a bunch of guys putting undeserved titles on their resumes on their way out the door,” Just Security’s Kate Brannen speculated on Twitter. But, she added, “At this point, I think everyone is still guessing.”

Other guesses include: 

  • Troop drawdowns. “Current and former administration officials say Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper Monday in part over his opposition to accelerating troop drawdowns worldwide, and especially in Afghanistan,” Politico’s Lara Seligman and Natasha Bertrand reported Wednesday. But this — like other reporting since Esper’s departure — offers no substantive indicators that a withdrawal from, e.g., Afghanistan, would actually happen. (Among the strongest suggestions yet: Fox News regular and retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor has joined Acting SecDef Chris Miller’s team as a senior advisor, Axios first reported Wednesday. CNN notes MacGregor is "An ardent opponent of the US military's presence in Afghanistan who once called for the use of lethal force against illegal immigrants and has made a litany of racist comments.")
  • Russia. David Ignatius at the Washington Post posited Tuesday that what’s at play could be Trump’s desire to rebut the conclusions of the Senate and the U.S. intelligence community about Russia’s support for Trump’s candidacy in 2016. Ignatius writes that senior military and intelligence officials have been trying to keep Trump from declassifying information things that “would compromise sensitive collection methods and anger key allies.” More from Ignatius, here.
  • More out-there possibilities include document shredding; slow-rolling a Biden transition; or, as Brannen submits, “putting a bunch of political lackeys in place to make it easier for Trump to stay in power despite losing the election.” 

Milley speaks: “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual,” Joint Chiefs Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said in remarks Wednesday at the Army's new museum at Fort Belvoir, Va. Lita Baldor of the Associated Press was on hand and filed this report, entitled, “Military wary that shakeup could upend its apolitical nature.”

From Defense One

The Clock is Ticking On F-35, Drone Sale to UAE // Marcus Weisgerber: Lame-duck approval of sale could allow UAE to sign contract for weapons before Biden takes office.

Give Us That Democracy Summit, President Biden // Kevin Baron: A long time ago, before the pandemic, he promised to convene free-world leaders. It’s still a good idea.

What Would a Climate-Focused DoD Budget Look Like? // John Conger: It’d be less about what we spend and more about how we spend the money we already have.

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 1923, Adolf Hilter was arrested for an attempted coup four days prior. He would spend the next five years in prison, out of which he emerged with his autobiography, “Mein Kampf.”

If current mitigation measures don't change, Americans can expect 400,000 total COVID deaths by Feb. 1, according to the latest update of the University of Washington’s IHME model.
“The world’s health is in a very bad place,” STAT News reports, because folks are “heading into winter in the Northern Hemisphere with Covid-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations all tallying new highs. That’s even before an expected spurt in all three metrics caused by colder weather and drier air, people spending much more time indoors, and overall weariness of lives disrupted by pandemic precautions — all of which make us more vulnerable to viruses.” Read on, here.
Leading headlines from major outlets today:

As U.S. deaths from the disease rise, President Trump has withdrawn from public view. Aides say he is focused on pushing a false narrative about winning re-election that even he does not believe.
Trump is denying President-elect Joe Biden access to the President’s Daily Brief, a courtesy customarily extended after the election. The Washington Post lists that among other reasons the president’s refusal to accept the election results is raising national-security risks.
The NYT looked around for historical precedents for the president’s behavior and found that “Denying defeat, claiming fraud and using government machinery to reverse election results are the time-honored tools of dictators.” Read, here.
Fact check from conspiracy land: The National Guard does not have elite troops that are carrying out a “secret recount” of election ballots. That’s just one of several completely unsupported allegations published on social media by a witness from the Trump campaign’s 230-plus pages of affidavits from poll watchers in Detroit, released Wednesday and reviewed by Reuters’s justice reporter Brad Heath. Read more about those affidavits and their claims — including one man who didn’t like what he saw on military ballots — via the Washington Post, here.

Elsewhere in the world, a veteran al-Qaeda leader was recently killed by Afghan security forces in western Afghanistan, FDD’s Long War Journal reported Wednesday. Mohammad Hanif was the man’s name, and he “was involved in the 2002 assassination attempt on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the suicide attack on the U.S. Consulate in Karachi that same year,” LWJ’s Bill Roggio reports. Much more to Hanif’s story, here.

Russia is sending troops to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, where tensions have eased slightly after the two sides signed their fourth ceasefire agreement, which effectively locks in place Azeri territorial gains, Reuters reported Wednesday.
For Russia, “Almost 2,000 servicemen, 90 armoured personnel carriers, and 380 vehicles and pieces of other hardware” are headed to “the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh and in a corridor between the region and Armenia.” The Russians are expected to remain for a period of five years.
Why overall tensions eased somewhat: Azerbaijan troops recently took control of a city called Shusha, which rests “on a mountain top above Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s biggest city, it gave Azerbaijan’s forces a commanding position from which to launch an assault.” Otherwise, “Ethnic Armenian forces must give up control of a slew of other areas by Dec. 1,” Reuters writes. Read on, here.

Russia says it will build a naval base on Sudan’s coast, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports today, three years after Sudan’s president reportedly initially pitched the idea.
Involved: An agreement for Russia “to deliver weapons and military hardware to Sudan for free in order maintain the air defense of the Sudanese naval base at Port Sudan, where the Russian naval facility would be built.” Russia currently plans to maintain “up to 300 crew and four warships...including ships with nuclear-propulsion systems.”
What this means: Shipping lanes along the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait could get a little more crowded, eventually. But it’s unclear exactly when this “base” would become fully operational for the Russian navy. Read on, here

Lastly today: A U.S. Navy unmanned ship has traveled from Alabama through the Panama Canal to California. USNI News quotes Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Josh Frey: “Recently, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) in partnership with the Navy conducted a long-range autonomous transit with a Ghost Fleet Overlord vessel. During this voyage, the vessel traveled over 4,700 nautical miles, 97 percent of which was in autonomous mode — a record for the program. Ghost Fleet Overlord will continue fleet experimentation to inform the Navy’s unmanned concept development.” Read on, here.