Today's D Brief: Austin’s rollout; Biden’s COVID plan; Iran rebuilding nuclear plant, underground; Sweden warms to NATO; And a bit more.

Lloyd Austin’s rollout. President-elect Joe Biden will formally introduce his pick for Defense Secretary, retired Army general Lloyd Austin, in a ceremony at 1:30 p.m. ET today in Wilmington, Delaware. 

The Biden transition team has emphasized at least a half-dozen interrelated challenges atop the agenda for whomever is placed in charge of the U.S. military in 2021. And those include:

  1. “executing the logistics associated with COVID-19 vaccine distribution”; 
  2. “restoring America’s alliances”; 
  3. “supporting and equipping servicemembers and caring for them and their families”; 
  4. “addressing the accelerating security threat posed by the climate crisis”; 
  5. “modernizing America’s armed forces and preparing for the conflicts of the future”; 
  6. and “keeping the nation safe and secure.”

Catch the live Austin rollout over on C-SPAN, here.

Biden laid out his case for picking Austin, despite the need to ask Congress for a waiver, in an oped for The Atlantic. Read that, here.

Some reactions: SAIS’s Eliot Cohen: “This Is No Job for a General.” Kevin Baron’s “The Problem With the SecDef Purity Test.” 

From Defense One

Austin Pick Thrusts Pentagon Into Identity-Politics Debate // Katie Bo Williams: His confirmation would be historic. But for whom?

Why I Chose Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense // Joseph Biden, The Atlantic: We need a leader who is tested, and matched to the challenges we face in this moment.

This Is No Job for a General / Eliot A. Cohen: President-elect Joe Biden should choose a civilian to lead his Department of Defense.

Army Disciplines 14 Soldiers, Creates New Duty Status After Murder // Ben Watson: The steps follow the conclusion of one of several inquests into the April murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen.

The Problem With the SecDef Purity Test // Kevin Baron: You don’t want a general, a man, a war veteran — and everyone in the defense industry is evil?

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with 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 1992, U.S. troops arrived in Somalia. 

President-elect Biden on Tuesday shared his top COVID-19 priorities for the first 100 days in office, and those include: 

  • a call for all Americans to wear masks;
  • a commitment to distribute 100 million vaccine shots;
  • and a promise to try and reopen most schools across the country.

U.S. death toll: At least 2,597 people died of COVID in the United States on Tuesday, bringing the 7-day average to 2,259 — the highest of the pandemic. (New York Times)
PPE status report: The federal government is well short of the number of respirator masks it targeted for frontline healthcare workers back in May. And that’s “partly because the White House didn’t take full advantage of the Defense Production Act to sufficiently increase domestic supply,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Freezers in the spotlight: Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine needs sub Arctic temperatures to keep it stable. Due to shortages, more than a dozen U.S. states have placed rush orders on what they think is enough dry ice to handle the task, Reuters reports.
The UK began its vaccination campaign on Monday, making it “the first Western country to deliver a broadly tested and independently reviewed vaccine to the general public,” the Associated Press reports.
Now Mexico, India and Morocco are getting ready for mass vaccinations as well. Mexico and Morocco say their vaccines will be free.
BTW: “Morocco is expected to be among 92 low- and middle-income countries supported by Covax, an international effort to ensure that vaccine supplies reach developing countries,” AP reports.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to call into question the presidential election certification process in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf already certified Biden’s victory in the state, whose 20 electors are scheduled to meet and vote Monday.
About the attempted challenge: It was a lawsuit “brought by Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who argued a 2019 state law authorizing universal mail-in voting is unconstitutional and that all ballots cast by mail in the general election in Pennsylvania should be thrown out,” NPR reports. The New York Times described it as “a long-shot request from Pennsylvania Republicans” that “failed to attract even a whisper of dissent in the court’s first ruling on a challenge to the outcome of the election.” 
The Trump campaign is at the “End of the Legal Road,” the Wall Street Journal reports today. "In the five weeks since Election Day, the Trump campaign and other Republicans have lost around 40 times in six pivotal states," the Journal writes. (Forbes puts the number now at 50.) "In several other cases, the campaign or allies withdrew claims after filing them."
Now only "A handful of longshot election challenges remain, including an effort by Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue four battleground states directly in the Supreme Court. He will need the court’s permission to do so, and legal experts believe the case has almost no chance at success."

It’s a fairly busy day on Capitol Hill with three different military-related hearings across the House and Senate today. The House Foreign Affairs Committee kicked things off with a 10 a.m. ET session on “Diplomacy or Dead End: An Evaluation of Syria Policy.” The State Department’s Special Envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn, is speaking for that one, which you can livestream here.
At the same time, the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs assesses the COVID-19 response from Department of Veterans Affairs officials. Catch that live here.
And in the afternoon, the House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing on “Fort Hood 2020: The Findings and Recommendations of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee,” with five members of that committee attending. That gets started at 1 p.m. ET.
Tuesday: House lawmakers passed the 2021 NDAA with enough votes to override Trump’s veto threat. “The House adopted a compromise $740.5 billion defense policy bill by a veto-proof majority Tuesday, rebuking President Donald Trump, who threatened to send back the bill because it doesn’t repeal a prized liability shield for social media firms,” Defense News reported.

Iran is moving its centrifuge operations underground. “In July, an explosion rocked a key Iranian nuclear facility. Iran called it sabotage and vowed to rebuild a destroyed building underground. Iran is now turning that promise into a reality, new satellite images show,” the New York Times reports off new Planet Labs imagery. 

Iraq check-in: Officials say “terrorists” set ablaze two small oil wells in the country’s northern region, Reuters reports from Kirkuk. The wells were hit with explosive devices that detonated 30 minutes apart, beginning at about 1:30 a.m. local.
How small? “The field produces about 25,000 barrels per day,” according to Iraq’s Oil Ministry, which said production from the two wells were no more than 2,000 bpd.
By the way, ISIS claimed a recent rocket attack on Iraqi oil refinery, which stopped production for several hours in Salahuddin province in late November.
Status report: “Although ISIL no longer holds territory in Iraq, the group maintains sleeper cells and frequently carries out attacks across parts of the country, including the north,” al-Jazeera reported on Nov. 29.
And don’t miss this 14-minute profile of Iraqis moving on after ISIS, from NPR’s Jane Arraf, reporting Tuesday for “All Things Considered.” 

‘Ask Jim what he thinks.’ Former SecDef Jim Mattis wants senators to sell the UAE $23 billion in arms, according to the UAE’s ambassador, HuffPost reports.
What’s going on: “Mattis became involved in the congressional fight over the sale earlier this week ahead of a looming vote on bipartisan legislation to block the transfer...The U.A.E.’s well-connected ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, has told more than one senator with concerns about the sale to call Mattis.”

Thanks to changing opinions of its far-right parliamentarians, Sweden is inching closer to NATO, Reuters reports. However, the Swedes are still not fully onboard yet with the idea of formally joining the 30-nation, Russia-focused alliance.
What’s going on: “Parliament’s defence and foreign affairs committee decided on Wednesday to call on the government in the legislature next week to add a NATO option to security policy,” Reuters writes. Such an option “would not mean Sweden would apply for membership of the U.S.-led Western alliance but rather that Sweden would consider it down the road if deemed necessary for security.” More here.

Lastly today: Russia says thieves stole technical plans for the Kremlin’s top-secret Doomsday Plane, an Ilyushin Il-80, Reuters reports from Moscow. The event purportedly happened last Friday in the southern region of Rostov, where police allegedly spotted "signs of a break-in via the cargo hatch" and said "39 electronic units had been removed." The items were believed to have been sought because they contained elements of gold and platinum. A bit more here.