Today's D Brief: Afghanistan pullout questions; Army’s investigations reform; Ponytails, approved; Iran nuke-talks ‘intensify’; And a bit more.

In a rare press briefing Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley listened to several questions about the U.S. military’s Afghanistan retrograde (its term for the drawdown), but neither Austin nor Milley provided that many answers to reporters’ questions. 

In brief: So far, everything is proceeding “according to plan,” Austin said. Milley, for his part, said that he’s “confident in our ability to meet the objective,” though he declined to give precise dates or timelines. 

U.S. military planners are still “crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,” according to Milley. And that means the Defense Department doesn’t yet know, for example, how it will train future Afghan forces, when it will withhold air support, or what will happen to contractors in the region. Both Austin and Milley said many answers hinge on input from Afghan security forces and the top U.S. officer in the country, Army Gen. Scott Miller. “There’s a reason he’s a four-star commander,” Austin said when asked about an eventual end to U.S. air support. (The New York Times has a bit more on the air support question, here.)

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and the U.S. military, Austin said there’s been no change since President Biden last week said that he would leave it up to the Defense Department to decide whether or not vaccines should be mandatory for troops. “We still believe that the right focus is to provide the best information available,” Austin said Thursday. “And this will help our troops to make informed decisions.”

Four out of every five U.S. military bases have lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to the latest public figures from the Defense Department. That means just 40 out of 230 installations still have restrictions, including nine bases across Japan. Find the latest updates (PDF) here.

Nearly a third of the U.S. is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is about 109 million people, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning. “Levels are higher among the elderly, with more than 70% of people age 65 or older fully vaccinated.”

From Defense One

Army Reorganizes Investigations Office After Fort Hood Review; Austin, Milley Signal More Changes // Tara Copp and Caitlin M. Kenney: The service will remove harassment investigations from units, but keep them within the military ranks. Is that enough?

Nobody Wants Rules in Space // Patrick Tucker: As space becomes more crowded, there’s little hope for new international rules to make it safer.

America Needs Competitive Intelligence  // Itai Shapira, retired Israeli colonel: Agencies ought to be thinking about how to bring U.S. capabilities to bear on adversaries’ vulnerabilities, in competition as well as in conflict.

Why We Need the Advanced Battle Management System // Gen. David Allvin: The character of war is changing; ABMS provides the tools for effective command and control into the future.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Tara Copp and Bradley Peniston. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day 21 years ago, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as president of Russia. 

Iranian, Chinese, Russian, and European officials are in Vienna for their “fourth round of high-level talks...aimed at bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran,” the Associated Press reports from Austria.
Reminder of where things stand: “Iran, which insists it does not want to produce a nuclear bomb, has said it is prepared to reverse all of its violations but that Washington must remove all sanctions imposed under Trump. On the other side is the question of what Iran’s return to compliance would look like.” Read on, here.

Female soldiers can now sport ponytails in any U.S. Army uniform, the service announced Thursday.
One big condition: “The length of the hair should not hinder a Soldier’s performance or present a safety risk.”
Find 12 images of approved styles shared Thursday on Twitter by the Army’s top enlisted soldier, here.
Related: The Marine Corps is extending its leave policy for new parents, Marine Corps Times reported Thursday. Details here.

Today on the Hill (all times Eastern):

  • 11:30 a.m.: U.S. Strategic Command’s Adm. Charles Richard speaks at a Brookings Institution online event on the future of strategic deterrence and nuclear modernization. More here.
  • Noon: Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond testify on the fiscal 2022 Air Force and Space Force budget request to the defense panel of the House Appropriations Committee. Livestream that one here.
  • 1 p.m.: Naval Information Warfare Systems Commands’ Rear Adm. Douglas Small speaks at the CSIS/USNI Maritime Security Dialogue. Details here.

And finally this week: No one knows where China’s Long March 5B rocket will come back down to Earth, including the Pentagon. And in case you’re curious, “We don't have a plan to shoot the rocket down,” Defense Secretary Austin told reporters Thursday. “We're hopeful that it will land in a place where it won't harm anyone, hopefully, in the ocean or—or someplace like that.”
About its size: 98 feet long and 16.5 feet wide, with a weight of about 21 metric tons, according to Time. That’d make it almost two-thirds as tall as the Statue of Liberty (not including her base).
You may recall much smaller SpaceX debris fell back to earth in March; one piece was recovered from the Oregon coast and another was located inland over Washington.
For the record, “There are 2,033 rocket bodies in Earth orbit,” T.S. Kelso of CelesTrak told Thursday, adding that the number could be larger since those are really only the objects “we have orbital data for, as there may be more classified ones. Of course, every one of them is uncontrolled. Of the 2,033, 546 belong to the U.S. and only 169 belong to China.”
Another bit of space debris trivia: The Chinese object is not “hurtling towards Earth at 18000 mph,” Harvard’s Jonathan McDowell tweets. “This is somewhat misleading,” he writes. Instead, “It is hurtling AROUND AND AROUND Earth at 18000 mph and crawling TOWARDS Earth at about 0.3 mph.”
One last thing: “There are no recorded instances of a human ever being killed by reentering space debris — though a cow in Cuba did lose its life in 1961,” the Washington Post reported Thursday.

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we'll see you again on Monday!