Today's D Brief: Thousands of troops passing up COVID shot; Russia’s fighter/drone pair; Austin’s NATO debut; Arctic wargames; And a bit more.

Only two-thirds of U.S. troops offered the COVID vaccine have taken it, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to House lawmakers on Wednesday. 

Before you ask: Defense officials later added that they aren’t tracking why so many troops are turning down their opportunity to get the vaccine.

Why isn’t the COVID vaccine mandatory? There’s a bit of history to that, going back to the anthrax vaccinations during the Gulf War. Defense One’s Elizabeth Howe explains why, here.

About 359,000 troops have received their first vaccine dose; about 147,000 of those have received a second dose, said Robert Salesses, acting assistant defense secretary for homeland defense and global security.

Why this matters: U.S. “troops often live, work and fight closely together in environments where social distancing and wearing masks, at times, are difficult,” the Associated Press reported off the DOD estimates Wednesday. What’s more, “The military’s resistance also comes as troops are deploying to administer shots at vaccination centers around the country and as leaders look to American forces to set an example for the nation.” 

And the wider U.S.? Only half of America’s general population are open to taking a vaccine “as soon as they can,” according to a January survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

When might all DoD personnel be vaccinated? “It'll probably be sometime in late July, August timeframe,” said Robert Salesses, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. 

Travel update: Almost half of U.S. military bases (44%) have lifted virus-related travel restrictions, the Defense Department said in its latest update Wednesday. That means 102 out of 231 locations have no related travel restrictions, which is 16 more than two weeks ago

Which bases changed in February? 

  • Six in South Korea (Camps Casey, Henry and Humphreys, as well as the Navy's Commander Fleet Activities Chinhae and the Air Force's bases in Osan and Kunsan); 
  • Two in California (Edwards Air Force Base and Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos);
  • Colorado's Fort Carson; 
  • Iowa's Camp Dodge; 
  • Alaska's Eielson AFB; 
  • New Mexico's Kirtland AFB; 
  • Alabama's Maxwell AFB; 
  • Nebraska's Offutt AFB; 
  • South Carolina's Shaw AFB;
  • And Sheppard AFB in Texas. Review the most recent list of travel-restricted bases (PDF) here.

More than 10,000 VA patients have died from COVID-19, Military Times reported Wednesday. Especially striking: “More than 60 percent of the deaths — 6,059 — have come since Nov. 1.” 

From Defense One

One-Third of US Troops Are Refusing the COVID Vaccine. History May Help Explain Why   // Elizabeth Howe: After botching anthrax shots decades ago, the Pentagon’s hands are tied. Only the president can order troops to take new vaccines.

Russia Is Working to Pair Combat Jets and Drones, Too // Patrick Tucker: In moves to match the U.S. military, experiments are aimed at producing mixed air regiments that are tied into a wider battlefield network.

Want to Shed Older Weapons? You Need a Solid Plan // Thomas W. Spoehr: To overcome Congressional resistance, the Pentagon needs to work with combatant commanders and industry to ensure that new systems will be ready to take the place of existing ones.

Welcome to this Thursday 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 1955, the U.S. military wanted to know how soldiers would react “under the anticipated conditions of nuclear warfare” so it sent several thousand to the Nevada Test Site for a series of 14 detonations that ran through the middle of May. The first of those, designated nuclear shot “Wasp,” happened on this day 66 years ago. NBC News has more about the veterans who survived those tests, here.

Day 2 of NATO’s Defense Ministers Council is today, though it’s more of a video teleconference conference than the traditional alliance defense minister meetings we expect in non-pandemic times. There were no big surprises out of day 1; and you can read over Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s contribution via a Pentagon readout, here.
According to SecDef Austin, the top issues animating alliance discussions involve: 

  • “Destabilizing behavior by Russia.”
  • “a rising China.”
  • “terrorism.” 
  • “and global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change.”

Some of the more dynamic issues challenging alliance unity include “internal disagreements, notably between Turkey and several allies including the U.S. and France,” Politico reports. “There are also tough decisions, such as whether to honor an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban to withdraw allied forces completely from Afghanistan by May 1.” That discussion topic is expected to take up a significant portion of today’s activities. 

A professor was killed in Kabul today when a bomb blew up his car while he and one other person were inside. The professor, Mubasher Muslimyar, taught Islamic law at Kabul University. So far no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing.
BTW: “Kabul has seen a series of attacks with small magnetic bombs attached under vehicles and other targeted killings against members of security forces, judges, government officials, civil society activists and journalists in recent weeks,” Reuters reports. Tiny bit more, here

Dozens of soldiers are exercising in Alaska ahead of the U.S. Army’s upcoming “Arctic strategy” launch. Army Times reported Wednesday that the 10 days of drills, known as Arctic Warrior 21, are “part of a renewed focus on cold weather warfare that inverts the old, summer-focused training cycle and pushes soldiers into the field during the winter.”
Here are a few tasks those Alaska-based soldiers probably didn’t think they’d be doing when they enlisted: “how to layer clothing properly, how to set up tents with heaters [without hurting anyone or anything] and how to pull a sled full of a squad’s essential gear.”
“Up here, in a matter of hours, if you haven’t taken steps to make sure you’ve got liquid water, you’ve got an ice block,” said Army Col. Chris Landers, who commands paratroopers with the 25th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade. Continue reading, here.
Need an Arctic strategy primer? We discussed the very topic last June with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz. Find that discussion — plus a follow-on chat with Arctic policy wonks David Auerswald of the National War College and Abbie Tingstad of the RAND Corporation — here

From Iron Dome to Arrow-4: The U.S. and Israel are teaming up for a new ballistic missile defense system, Reuters reports in a shorty from Jerusalem. 

Lastly today: Former SOCOM and JSOC commander William McRaven has a kids’ version of his self-help book. Military Times: “Enter Skipper the seal, a hard-charging pinniped and the subject of retired Adm. William McRaven’s upcoming children’s book ‘Make Your Bed With Skipper the Seal,’ an adaptation of the New York Times bestseller ‘Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World’ — also penned by the former SEAL and special operations commander who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.” Read on, here.