Today's D Brief: Biden heads to Europe; US gear in a Chinese lab; Afghanistan pullout half done; Border control; And a bit more.

U.S. President Joe Biden is wheels-up for Europe, two days ahead of the start of a meeting between leaders of the Group of Seven nations in Cornwall, U.K. 

What’s Biden want to achieve with this first stop? “Strengthening the alliance and mak[ing] it clear to [Russian autocratic President Vladimir] Putin and to China that Europe and the United States are tight, and the G7 is going to move,” he told reporters before boarding Air Force One on Wednesday morning. He also said he has what a reporter referred to as “a vaccine strategy for the world,” and Biden said he’ll announce it later during the trip. 

As far as his early read on Putin and some kind of “understanding” when it comes to cybersecurity, Biden replied, “Who knows at this point. It’s going to be a subject of our discussion.”

Among the big questions going into this trip: “Can Biden save the West?” That’s what Ishaan Tharoor asks today in his foreign policy column for the Washington Post

Biden himself put democracy squarely on the agenda in an opinion piece posted Tuesday in WaPo, and in a tweet promoting the op-ed, which said to the world, “The trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and demonstrating that democracies can both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”

The view from Europe: “[P]erceptions of the American political system have generally improved since autumn 2020,” according to a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations. However, Europeans “are sceptical about the restoration of America’s leadership and feel that there can be no return to the West of the cold war era.”

And in terms of how EU residents would like the future to unfold, the report’s authors write, “the two most common answers — representing almost half of respondents who chose an option — concerned its global role: 33 percent chose the option that the EU should be a beacon of democracy and human rights; and 18 percent said that the EU should be one of the world’s great powers, capable of defending itself.”

One interesting finding: “Only in Poland, Hungary, and Italy do large majorities believe the American political system works well or very well.” Read over the full report here. (And here’s Politico on notable divergences in U.S. and European policy.)

By the way: A White House plane also headed to Europe was grounded just before takeoff when Brood X cicadas swarmed the engine late Tuesday evening. The Times and the Post have more here and here, respectively. 

One last thing: America’s top military commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, will discuss “competition and deterrence in Europe” in an Atlantic Council virtual event this afternoon. That’s slated for 2:15 p.m. Livestream and registration here.

From Defense One

For Now, ‘Over the Horizon’ Protection for Afghanistan Will Fly From Existing Hubs, Acting Air Force Secretary Says  // Tara Copp: Service wants $10 billion for South Asia and Middle East operations as Pentagon develops long-term plan for Afghanistan support.

Navy Finds 32 Problems with Littoral Combat Ships // Caitlin M. Kenney: Study reveals “key reliability issues” and maintenance averaging up to two weeks per month to fix.

New Air Force One Could Be Delayed Another Year // Marcus Weisgerber: The GAO’s latest cost estimate brings the price tag to $2.6 billion apiece.

How China Steals US Tech to Catch Up in Underwater Warfare // Peter W. Singer and Ma Xiu: From legal filings to a Chinese lab’s website, open source documents provide an illuminating trail.

Digital Engineering Could Speed Wartime Arms Production // Marcus Weisgerber: It could also allow contractors to build and modernize weapons they did not create.

Fight Digital Authoritarianism by Giving People the Tools to Counter It // Joshua Baron: Defense leaders should not wait for the rest of the government to act.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. Today in 1959 saw the launch of USS George Washington (SSBN 598), the world’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine.

VP Harris’s message to South American migrants: “Do not come” to the U.S., Vice President Kamala Harris said several times during a press conference in Guatemala on Monday. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border,” she said, before traveling north on Tuesday for a meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Here are a few policy changes the Biden administration has promoted when it comes to strengthening immigration controls at America’s southern border, via the Wall Street Journal

  • Offering “temporary work visas as a way to expand legal pathways for migrants”;
  • Helping provide “loans for affordable housing in southern Mexico, infrastructure projects and the coffee industry”;
  • A $40 million USAID program to help “young, primarily indigenous women, in Guatemala,” with “an additional $48 million for affordable housing and agribusiness”;
  • And “form[ing] a new task force, led by the Justice Department...aimed at combating human smuggling and trafficking groups.”

Big picture dynamic: “Democratic and Republican administrations have struggled to find long-term solutions to handling surges in migrants from Central America, including efforts to curb corruption,” the Journal reminds us, and emphasizes “Many migrants say they continue to be driven by poverty and violence in their home countries.” Making all of this worse: “The region was hit hard last year by two disastrous hurricanes.” Continue reading here, or at the New York Times or at the Washington Post

The U.S. military is halfway finished withdrawing from Afghanistan. “We have completed greater than 50% of the entire retrograde process,” U.S. Central Command officials announced Tuesday in the latest update to America’s historic exit from the place sometimes referred to as the “graveyard of empires.”
So far, six military bases have been transferred to the Afghan defense ministry. And “the equivalent of approximately 500 C-17 loads of material” have been moved out of the country, CENTCOM said.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, unknown gunmen fired on a camp of mine removers, killing 10 people and wounding 16 others in the northeastern province of Baghlan, the New York Times reports. The killed and injured were employees of a British charity called the HALO Trust, which reported the incident overnight on Twitter.
The Taliban deny any involvement, despite accusations of the sort from government officials in Kabul. However, “the attackers asked who among those in the camp were Shiite Hazaras,” the Times writes, adding that this question has been “common in previous attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan.”
Related: The Air Force wants $10 billion to enable air strikes, air cover, and other aid to friendly forces in Afghanistan. The strikes, etc., would originate in bases outside the country. Defense One’s Tara Copp has more, here.

The Senate passed a $250 billion China-focused tech bill on Tuesday. The Times previewed the bill Monday. Read more about it from Wednesday reporting in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Extra reading: How U.S. gear wound up at a Chinese research lab with military ties. Ma Xiu and Peter Singer trace the open-source trail, here.

As part of a wider U.S. effort to decrease its industrial reliance on China, the Pentagon on Tuesday published its review of America’s “Strategic and Critical Materials,” which includes minerals “not found or produced in the United States in quantities to meet our needs.”
Why this matters: “The concentration of global supply chains for strategic and critical materials in China creates risk of disruption and of politicized trade practices,” and that might mean America’s “civilian economy would bear the brunt of the harm from a supply disruption event,” the Defense Department said in a statement Tuesday.
Among the recommendations for lawmakers: 

  • “Appropriation of at least $1 billion over the next Future Years Defense Program to sustain National Defense Stockpile operations”;
  • Using the Defense Production Act to incentivize the production of “sustainably-produced strategic and critical materials, including scaling proven research and development concepts and emerging technologies from other programs, such as the Small Business Innovation Research awardees”;
  • Defining “sustainability metrics for strategic and critical materials”;
  • “Providing financial incentives to increase sustainability in overseas mining practices, via assistance from the Export-Import Bank and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation”; and more (PDF here).

The U.S. Army’s future is the focus of an AEI event this afternoon featuring Chief Gen. James McConville and Army Futures Command’s Gen. John Murray. Details and livestream here.

And finally: the latest in pandemic politics and public safety. Today we learned “The top 22 states (including D.C.) with the highest adult vaccination rates all went to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.” That’s according to NPR’s Domenico Montanaro, who reviewed recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s more, “Some of the least vaccinated states are the most pro-Trump. Trump won 17 of the 18 states with the lowest adult vaccination rates.”
Nationwide, “More than 80% of people over 65 have gotten at least one shot, compared with just 45% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 51% of those 25 to 39,” Montanaro reports. More where that came from, here.