Today's D Brief: State of Defense 2021; Side deal with Taliban?; Blinken to Ukraine; France’s sci-fi red teams; And a bit more.

This week, we heard the president’s take on America’s “State of the Union.” But what about its state of defense? President Joe Biden was elected on a promise to return the U.S. to its standing as a respected global leader through stronger alliances, reduced military interventions and greater cooperation. 

“Now comes the hard part: the details,” writes Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron. For example, “No major line-item changes — from end strength to the nuclear modernization plan — are expected in the White House’s first budget request, due next month,” Baron writes. 

But one useful way to look at the U.S. military’s likely near-term future is POTUS46’s list of threats to the nation from that Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress. “After the pandemic and climate, Biden listed China and Russia, and only then mentioned Afghanistan,” says Baron. “It’s remarkable that the country to which the U.S. military has given the most attention in the past 20 years has become the fifth-ranked item in a presidential address. And it reflects the changed priorities of the American people and their elected political leaders.”

What’s ahead for the Army? The country’s largest service is on a public-relations campaign to convince Americans, Congress, and anyone willing to listen that it is more than merely relevant; rather, officials argue, it has a key role to play in great power competition and that its requested weapons are worth buying and virtually everything is worth modernizing. Read more from Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, Kevin Baron, and Ben Watson, here.

By contrast, Navy leaders seem to have an easier argument to make that their fleets are insufficient to their tasks, and they’re making it. China’s naval shipyards are pouring out new warships of increasing capability. Many of Beijing’s most provocative actions of the past few years have been maritime in nature. Most of the world’s commerce still depends on safe passage over oceans. And yet the service branch is still awaiting a Biden-nominated secretary. Defense One’s Bradley Peniston has much more, here.

Air Force officials, meantime, say the service “is too small for what our nation is asking us to do.” You may remember just two years ago the service printed up mugs saying “386,” hoping for that expanded number of squadrons. Now, the service knows it will have to live with less, thanks also to the new Space Force swallowing some of its capabilities. Defense One’s Tara Copp has more on the Air Force’s months ahead, here.

And in the Marine Corps, Commandant Gen. David Berger’s plans for major changes in force structure, platforms, and purpose are closer to becoming realities. A 180-page plan released in February contains new details of how the Corps will improve its ability to move expeditionary forces more quickly by 2023, Berger’s target date. The corps also just issued an update to his larger 2030 plan this month, which calls for shifting $12 billion to update plans and platforms. They are just 18 months into that 10-year plan, Berger said, with a long way to go. In the near term, more Marines — nearly 40 percent — are declining to take the COVID vaccine than any other service, which is a readiness issue. Read more on the Corps from Defense One’s Elizabeth Howe, here.

And finally: America’s Space Force is rapidly creating the organizational structure and authorities it needs. Any hope that Biden would scrap the force was dashed when the White House made clear (after a small gaffe) they are giving full-throated support to the service branch Trump created. Over the next year, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond will seek more public support in addition to more satellites, partnerships with the rapidly growing private space industry, and more Guardians. Defense One’s Tara Copp and Patrick Tucker have much more to say about Space Force’s next few months, here.

From Defense One

China Features Heavily in the Army’s Next Big Emerging Tech Experiment // Patrick Tucker: The Army’s connect-everything experiment is about to get much bigger, and looks across the Pacific.

State of Defense 2021 // Defense One Staff : Our annual service-by-service look at where the U.S. military is, and where it's going.

Retired Generals and Service Chiefs Launch 'Operation Protect Democracy' in Wake of Capitol Attack // Tara Copp: Group plans to advocate for increased voter access at the federal and state level. But will the legislatures listen?

Illegal Fishing Is a National Security Problem // Walker D. Mills: The stability of countries and regions are threatened by the declining health of fish stocks, and by the groups and governments that run lawless fishing fleets.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 2004 and just over a year into its Iraq invasion, the U.S. military was plunged into ignominy and scandal with the growing release of Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse photos — first by “60 Minutes” on CBS News followed shortly afterward on this day 17 years ago by the New Yorker. 

There’s reportedly a “secret annex” to the U.S.-Taliban deal struck under the Trump administration, according to Reuters, which cites unnamed Western officials saying this side deal involves a “Taliban ring of protection” around bases hosting U.S.-led coalition troops across Afghanistan.
The Taliban have allegedly been protecting those bases “from attacks by rival, or rogue Islamist groups for over a year,” and that includes fighters from the Haqqani network and Islamic State, Reuters reports. The Taliban “provided a layer of cover, almost like a buffer and ordered their fighters to not injure or kill any foreign soldier in this period,” one the officials said.
But more recently, attacks on Afghan forces jumped nearly 37% over the first three months of the year compared to the first quarter of 2020. That’s according to the latest data from the watchdogs at the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which released its newest report (PDF) today.   
And “In the past two weeks alone, [Taliban] militants have killed more than 100 Afghan security personnel in a surge of attacks,” Reuters writes.
Said a Taliban spox: “So far our commitment of not attacking the foreign forces is until May 1, after that whether we will attack or not is an issue under discussion.” More here. Or read the SIGAR report, here.

U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken will visit Ukraine next week, the State Department announced today. That trip will follow three days of meetings with G7 foreign ministers beginning Monday in London.
On Blinken’s docket: “Tackling the COVID-19 and climate crises,” as well as “advancing economic growth, human rights, food security, gender equality, and women’s and girls’ empowerment,” according to the State Department. A bit more from Foggy Bottom, here.

The French military is using sci-fi writers and artists to envision the future of security as far out as four decades from today. Emmanuel Chiva, who directs the French Defense Innovation Agency, spoke briefly about the effort — similar in some ways to the work of Peter W. Singer and August Cole, e.g. — this week in Germany.
“The goal of the red team is to scare [the military establishment] and to be able to make them think about how they could adapt to those emerging threats,” Chiva said in an online conference Thursday. Tiny bit more from Defense News, here

Finally this week: Girl Scout cookies via drone. The distribution system is being tested in Virginia in what AP on Wednesday reported is just “the latest attempt to build public enthusiasm for futuristic drone delivery as Wing competes against Amazon, Walmart, UPS and others to overcome the many technical and regulatory challenges of flying packages over neighborhoods.”
ICYMI: “Federal officials started rolling out new rules in mid-April that will allow operators to fly small drones over people and at night, potentially giving a boost to commercial use of the machines,” AP writes. In terms of safety and tracking, two issues we broached in our autumn podcast episode on the future of UAVs, AP reports, ”Most drones will need to be equipped so they can be identified remotely by law enforcement officials.” Read on here

And have a safe weekend, everyone. We’ll catch you again on Monday!

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