Today's D Brief: Photos from Iraq attack; Troops & COVID; Spratleys FONOP; AFSOC plans new plane; And a bit more.

The rockets that struck U.S. forces at an Iraqi base on Monday night destroyed a contractor living facility, killing one and wounding four others, including an American service member, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports from northern Iraq.

Reminder: 14 rockets fell on the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil on Monday. The attack was claimed by an Iranian-supported militia group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam. 

Williams' photos of the U.S. base, located on the far end of the city's international airport, show tented structures completely burned to their metal frame skeletons, revealing blackened tables and bunks. 

The U.S. service member who was wounded in the attack suffered only a "minor injury" and has returned to duty, brigade commander Col. Scott Desormeaux said in an interview. But some of the contractors' injuries were serious enough to warrant surgery, he said. More from Williams, here.

U.S. reax? “The president of the United States and the administration reserves the right to respond in a timely manner of our choosing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. Meantwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered help in the investigation to Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, CNBC reported.

NATO’s post-COVID future in Iraq? Unnamed diplomats told Reuters on Monday the alliance is mulling a troop increase from 500 or so to possibly more than 4,000 once the pandemic eases, eventually. (In Tuesday’s D Brief, we cited this possible troop increase, but mistakenly noted the changes were for Afghanistan instead of Iraq.) The plans are expected to be announced in an alliance video teleconference scheduled for Thursday. More from Reuters here

SecDef Austin previewed his NATO input in an op-ed Tuesday evening in the Washington Post. The heart and soul of his commentary is laid out in the first two grafs: “President Biden made it clear two weeks ago that diplomacy will be our primary means of engaging with the world, and it must be our first tool of choice. At the same time, the president also recognizes that all of our decisions and actions must be accomplished from a position of strength,” Austin writes. “For the Defense Department, this means fielding a credible force, ready to back up the hard work of diplomacy. It also means working closely with our allies and partners to secure our common interests and promote our shared values abroad. Simply put, we cannot meet our responsibilities alone, nor should we try.” Read on, here

From Defense One

New Plane Key to Special Ops Vision for Africa, General Says  // Marcus Weisgerber: Air Force Special Operations Command is planning flight demonstrations in coming months.

Defense One Radio, Ep. 87 // Defense One Staff: “The Daughters of Kobani” with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

Defense One Radio, Ep. 86 // Defense One Staff: Insurrection, social media, and the future of tech policy.

Don’t Downgrade Space // Dan Tomanelli: Moves and hints portend a worrying shifting of priorities under the Biden administration.

What the Fear of China Is Doing to American Science // Rory Truex, The Atlantic: A campaign against Chinese scientists threatens the openness that defines U.S. universities.

Welcome to this Wednesday 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

Three top defense officials are testifying this morning on the Pentagon's COVID-19 response. That starts at 11 a.m. ET before the House Armed Services Committee. Details here. Watch a livestream here.
Currently: U.S. troops are helping to vaccinate people in Los Angeles and Oakland, California. Active duty troops are also starting up two more centers in New York and Virginia, and will open a fifth in the U.S. Virgin Islands in early March, Air Force Gen. Glen Vanherck told reporters on Tuesday. A total of 20 servicemember teams have been authorized. (Military Times)
By the numbers: Some 487,855 people have died of COVID in the United States, more people than live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. An average of 2,183 people have died each day in the past week. But: “Over the past week, there has been an average of 81,200 cases per day, a decrease of 43 percent from the average two weeks earlier,” the New York Times reports.

This afternoon, Army Chief Gen. James McConville will elaborate on “great power competition” at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. Here’s what McConville told us on the very topic back in October: “When we take a look at great power, competition, [it’s] very different than the type of combat that we've been used to which I talk about irregular warfare, or counterinsurgency, or kind of terrorism. We're talking about the ability to do large-scale, ground combat operations where we will be contested not only in the land, but in the sea, in the air, and cyber, and space. And so as we train our troops to do this, we go out to combat training centers [and] we present them with multiple dilemmas that are going to allow them to operate in these types of environments.”
In terms of China, McConville is fond of "long-range precision fires," or the kind of weapons that can send an artillery round very close to a target 43 miles away, e.g. (More on that topic at Defense One, here.)
When it comes to Russia, McConville said, "having strong allies and partners in Europe is extremely important. And we do have very, very strong partners and a lot of the partners — whether it's Poland, Romania, Germany, really in all the Baltic states; they are very interested and working together with us. We share the same values; we share the same interests, and they just want an opportunity for freedom and for their people to have the opportunity to prosper. And so what we want to do is work with them to increase their capacities and their capabilities. You know, basically to deter any type of malign activity that's going on in the region. And that's really the goal that we have.” More where that came from, here

China, India expected to join Iranian-Russian naval exercise. The wargames in the northern Indian Ocean, which began Tuesday, will include “shooting at sea and air targets and liberating hijacked ships, as well as search and rescue and anti-piracy operations,” Al-Jazeera reports.
BTW: "This is the second joint Russian-Iranian naval exercise since December 2019, when the two countries plus China held a drill in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman," Voice of America reports. "Iran and China also participated in military exercises held in Russia in September 2020."

The U.S. Navy just sailed by the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the 7th Fleet announced overnight. China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all claim some portion of the Spratleys. The guided-missile destroyer Russell conducted this latest “freedom of navigation operation,” a full list of which you can find here.
Why FONOP the Spratleys? China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel passes through their territorial sea, the Navy said in the 7th Fleet announcement. “Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States — including their warships — enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea…By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.”
Bigger picture: This latest FONOP “follows a joint exercise by two U.S. carrier groups in [the] South China Sea and another warship sailing near Chinese-controlled Paracel islands earlier this month,” Reuters reports. “Those actions had suggested that the Biden administration was not about to scale back operations challenging Beijing’s claims after the ramp-up seen during the Trump administration.”

And finally today: The U.S. Navy is trying to break free of marathon deployments to the Persian Gulf. “After showing signs of improvement following two deadly collisions in 2017, the Navy is again under pressure to provide aircraft carrier presence to the Middle East,” Defense News’ David Larter writes. It’s a decade-old problem: U.S. Central Command wants carrier groups, “despite what experts say is limited public evidence that such deployments deter the United States’ top geopolitical adversary in the region: Iran.”
Relief on the horizon? “With experts and lawmakers alike intent on considering competition with China, might the new administration finally break the cycle of deploying the fleet beyond its means to service Central Command’s demands? There’s reason to believe that may be the case,” Larter writes. Read on, here.