Today's D Brief: RIP, Gen. Powell; Austin in Europe; China's scary missile; Taiwan Strait transits; And a bit more.
RIP, retired Army Gen. Colin Powell. The former State Secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman passed away this morning from complications related to COVID-19, according to a statement from his family posted to Facebook.
“Powell was successfully fighting multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood cells,” CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted this morning, “and that fight compromised his immune system—which was a profound challenge when he contracted COVID.” He had been treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and was fully vaccinated, his family said in a statement.
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this morning during travels to Europe (more on that below). “I have lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart just learning of this just recently.” See the rest via C-SPAN, here.
SecDef Austin’s Euro trip. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is traveling this week to Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania before swinging back westward to Belgium at the start of the weekend. This will be his third trip to Europe since POTUS46 took office in late January (the previous two trips were in April and June), but his first trip to the three eastern stops listed above.
Some of the issues on Austin’s agenda include Georgia and Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” since both have been subject to Russian military invasions over the past 14 years, and Black Sea security issues.
One thing in Romania that Austin’s not planning to visit, according to the Pentagon’s preview: the U.S. military’s Aegis Ashore missile defense system, which has been in place at Deveselu in south-central Romania since May 2016. Austin does, however, have a planned stop at the Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, which is on Romania’s eastern flank.
Then it’s onward to Belgium, where NATO defense chiefs are holding their first in-person ministerial later this week in Brussels.
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Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1565, the first recorded naval battle between a European nation (Portugal in this instance) and Japan occurred in the Battle of Fukuda Bay.
Scary weapon alert: China flew a missile around the globe in August before it came down and landed, missing its target by about 24 miles, Financial Times’ Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille reported on Saturday (link is paywalled) citing “five people familiar with the test.” Sevastopulo called it “a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile,” which “demonstrat[ed] an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because “The Soviets deployed an orbital bombardment system in the 1970s,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, linking to a thorough analysis from 21 years ago (PDF), including a table of known Soviet launches. “This is an old concept that is newly relevant as a way to defeat missile defenses.”
- Lewis even explained some of the concepts behind this in our Defense One Radio episode about “War in Space” back in March 2020. “The weapon can go up into orbit and it can then come down pretty much anywhere,” he told us in the podcast. “So it gives you infinite range.”
Indeed, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall flagged this capability concern in a speech he delivered last month, as Spacenews.com recalls here.
But back to the history: “At its peak, the Soviets deployed 18 R-36O missiles,” Lewis tweeted Saturday. “This wasn’t a lark or a joke. It was designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses, like the Safeguard ABM system.” (The Chinese also considered this in the early 1970s, as Fordham University History Professor Asif Siddiqi explains, here.)
One big problem: “I would say that the disadvantage is a real challenge to accuracy,” Lewis explained for us back nearly two years ago. “It’s very hard because you have to put the nuclear weapon up into orbit and then you have to have a rocket stage since again, it’s falling. It’s going to stay in orbit once it’s there. [But] You have to use energy to push it back out of orbit, to push it down into the atmosphere. And that does raise real questions about whether one can control it and make it accurate.”
Bigger picture: “This is how arms races work,” Lewis said in his thread Saturday. “We put a missile defense in Alaska, China builds an orbital bombardment system to come up over the South Pole. It will go on like this, at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, a forever race with no finish line.” So what next, then, for the U.S., you ask—plop down a missile defense site south of the equator? Perhaps in the Falklands or on the Galapagos?
Maybe more usefully, if the U.S. wants to curb use of these systems, it’s very likely going to have to accept some curbs on its own capabilities, Lewis argued this past February in Foreign Affairs.
Back stateside, “air-to-air missile defense” is the focus of a virtual event hosted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, featuring NORAD’s Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Murray and Air Force Brig. Gen. Christopher Niemi of the Hawaii-based Pacific Air Forces. That’s slated for 3 p.m. ET at MDAA’s YouTube channel, here.
New today: NATO is looking increasingly inward as it plans to “counter [a] rising China,” FT’s Sevastopulo reported Monday after speaking with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. This means alliance members are expecting to “‘scale down’ activities outside of their borders and ‘scale up’ their domestic defensive resilience to better resist external threats,” Stoltenberg explained.
“This whole idea of distinguishing so much between China, Russia, either the Asia-Pacific or Europe: it is one big security environment and we have to address it all together,” Stoltenberg said. Read on, here.
The U.S. and Canadian navies sailed through the Taiwan Strait last Thursday and Friday, U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet officials said over the weekend. That makes the 10th such transit during President Biden’s nine months in office, according to a tally maintained by Collin Koh of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Involved: Guided missile destroyer USS Dewey and Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg, Reuters reported Sunday—along with the obligatory official condemnation of the strait transit by officials in Beijing. More here.
America’s Afghan resettlement efforts are taking longer than initially thought thanks in part to “a nationwide housing shortage and paperwork delays,” the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
Pakistan’s Taliban want to retake land lost to the military over the past seven years across the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. And the group wants to “rule by its strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law in those areas, as well as the right to keep their weapons” seized by Pakistani forces, the Associated Press’s Kathy Gannon reports from Peshawar.
And lastly today: Toxic chemicals have been found in the groundwater of at least 13 bases and DOD facilities along the Gulf of Mexico, at levels hundreds of times higher than groundwater safety standards in some states, Military Times reported last week.
MacDill Air Force Base, Tyndall Air Force Base, Eglin Air Force Base, and Navy air stations in Pensacola are among the facilities with high levels of the “forever chemicals,” according to Military Times’ Rachel Nostrant.
Why it matters: “Even at very low doses of PFAS in drinking water, our service members and their families are at risk of the suppression of their immune system and an elevated risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, and reproductive and developmental harms, among other serious health issues,” a policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group wrote in a report about the contamination. Continue reading, here.