Today's D Brief: Austin in Manila; WH vs. COVID; New sanctions on Iran?; Afghan Air Force's collapse; And a bit more.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in the Philippines today wrapping up his travels to the Asia-Pacific region that began Friday with stops in Alaska and later Singapore. The Philippines just notched its largest single-day increase in COVID cases in more than six weeks, Reuters Idrees Ali reports while traveling along.

Here’s a quick reminder of the SecDef’s goals for this trip, via the Pentagon’s press office: “Secretary Austin’s visit will demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris administration places on Southeast Asia and on [​​the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific’s architecture. This trip will underscore the enduring U.S. commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting ASEAN centrality.”

Austin dropped by Vietnam on Wednesday. There, he met his counterpart Gen. Phan Văn Giang and Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính. He also brought the message that the U.S. is sending five million Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses to Hanoi, as well as $20 million in related COVID support, Austin tweeted early this morning.

ICYMI: Since May, the U.S. has “shared more than 40 million COVID-19 vaccine doses throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” Austin said Tuesday in Singapore. Recipients of those vaccines include Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

By the way: “Two US sailors died of COVID-19 in the past week,” Navy Times reported Thursday. 

Back in the states this afternoon, President Joe Biden will describe “the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated and combat the spread of the Delta variant,” the White House announced in its public schedule for the day. 

Here’s Reuters’ frontpage headline for the morning: “Biden's COVID-19 strategy thwarted by anti-vaxxers, Delta variant” 

On the bright side, the U.S. economy seems to be doing well. The Associated Press reports it’s growing at a quarterly rate (6.5%) that “has now surpassed its pre-pandemic level,” according to new data from the Commerce Department. However, “The quarterly figure was less than analysts had expected. But that was mainly because supply chain bottlenecks exerted a stronger-than-predicted drag on companies’ efforts to restock their shelves.” More here, or via the Wall Street Journal, here

Meanwhile at the Olympics: “Officials in Tokyo alarmed as virus cases hit record highs,” AP reports

From Defense One

DOD Reimposes Mask Mandate Inside Pentagon, Other Bases Near ‘Substantial’ COVID Transmission // Bradley Peniston and Tara Copp: Troops, employees, contractors, and others must wear masks indoors on Defense Department facilities in the Pentagon and these areas.

Biden’s 6-Month Clock On Russia-U.S. Nuke Talks Starts Now // Jacqueline Feldscher: Officials met for the first time in Geneva on Wednesday. They’re set to come together again in September.

How AI Is Revealing the Secrets of Iran’s Nascent Centrifuge Factory // Patrick Tucker: Satellites can’t directly observe the underground facility, but analysis of its surroundings yields a progress report.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1900, the King of Italy was assassinated by an anarchist. Thirteen months later, an American anarchist claimed to have been inspired by the murder of King Umberto I when he shot President William McKinley at close range. McKinley died eight days later. 

Iran’s precision-guided missiles and drones are a bigger regional threat than its nuclear program, “Western security officials” tell the Wall Street Journal.
That’s why the U.S. is now considering a new round of sanctions, possibly targeting Iranian “subsystems and components for its drones, notably engines and microelectronics.”
Worth noting: “Iran says some of its drones now have a strike range of 4,400 miles. U.S. and Western officials consider many Iranian military claims to be exaggerated, but haven’t specifically rebutted the Iranian assertion.” Read on, here.
ICYMI: What’s Iran leader’s top takeaway from the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal? “Trusting the West does not work,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse reporting.
Context: Iranian officials have “been holding talks with major powers since April on bringing Washington back into the agreement, but a deal now seems unlikely,” at least until after President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office. More, here.

Don’t look now, but the Afghan Air Force is collapsing quite “predictably,” Task & Purpose reported Thursday. The quick read: “About one-third of the Afghan Air Force’s 160 aircraft can no longer fly because they lack spare parts since the United States withdrew its contractors from the country,” according to an Afghan lawmaker speaking about a week ago. But that’s not all: “The Afghan Air Force has also run out of laser-guided precision munitions,” T&P’s Jeff Schogol writes.
And just two days after that Afghan lawmaker made his concerns public, CENTCOM’s Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said the U.S. had recently “increased airstrikes in the support of Afghan forces...and we’re prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.”
In Afghan headlines today: 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is calling for an immediate ceasefire with the Taliban. Here’s that message, via Twitter this morning: “The Taliban's offensive has resulted in loss of innocent Afghan lives, including through continued targeted killings, displacement of the civilian population, looting & burning of buildings, destruction of vital infrastructure, and damage to communication networks.” 

And lastly today: An Army E-6 died this week while conducting underwater stress training near Key West, Fla., Army Times reported Wednesday. The soldier had been assigned to the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, and he passed away after training at Naval Air Station Key West, where he had submerged but “did not resurface. The cadre immediately entered the pool and found him unresponsive,” according to the Army Combat Readiness Center and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. “The Dive Medical Officer attempted to resuscitate him, and he was transported to the Lower Keys Medical Center Emergency Room where he was pronounced dead following full medical intervention.” RIP, soldier. Continue reading, here.