Today's D Brief: Vaccine-related discharges begin; 800K dead in the US from COVID; Impunity in Kabul; And a bit more.

More than two dozen Airmen have been discharged for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine, service officials told Lita Baldor of the Associated Press on Monday—41 days after the Air Force’s Nov. 2 deadline to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

All of them “were in their first term of enlistment, so they were younger, lower-ranking personnel,” according to service officials. And each of them “were formally removed from service for failure to obey an order,” Baldor writes. 

Bigger picture: Over 97% of America’s active-duty military has been fully vaccinated. The Washington Post has a bit more on the nearly 40,000 “vaccine holdouts” among its 1.3 million active-duty personnel. 

Grim milestone: At least 800,000 Americans have died from the virus so far, which has hit those over the age of 65 the hardest, and seems to be whipping around the country again with less than two weeks to go until Christmas. Worldwide, almost 5 and a half million are believed to have perished from the virus, according to CNN; and this is likely an undercount. 

Extra reading:Omicron Is a Dress Rehearsal for the Next Pandemic,” the New York Times reports in a sort of review of America’s lessons learned (and not) after nearly two years of life under the COVID shadow. 

The U.S. Army’s soldiers-in-training will start traveling home for the holidays this week—regardless of their vaccine status—as the service nears its COVID-19 vaccine deadline, Army officials told reporters Monday. 

This holiday season, about 45,000 soldiers training across the United States are expected to travel to see their families during a leave period that starts Dec. 16 and ends around Jan. 3,  Defense One’s Caitlin Kenney reports. That number includes soldiers in basic training, advanced individual training for their jobs, the basic officer leaders course, and instructors at these schools. 

By comparison, “Last year, when no vaccines were available, the command had less than one percent return from winter holiday leave with a positive COVID-19 case—less than 450 cases,” Kenney writes. 

Service-wide, 95 percent of active-duty soldiers have been fully vaccinated, as of last Monday (Dec. 7). Read on, here.

From Defense One

​Army Will Let Unvaccinated Soldiers Be Home for Christmas // Caitlin M. Kenney: About 45,000 of the newest soldiers, and their instructors, are expected to travel during holiday leave.

Don't Buy China's Hypersonic Head-Fake. Its Spaceplanes Are Racing Ahead. // Peter W. Singer and Daniel Shats: In the past five years, China’s spaceplane development has accelerated, adding breakthroughs, tests, and new industry players.

How to Avert War in Ukraine // Lyle J. Goldstein: The West should swallow a bitter pill.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with editing by Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1955, the United Nations expanded to 68 members with the addition of 16 countries, including Hungary. The Soviet Red Army invaded Hungary less than 12 months later while local leaders in Bucharest pleaded for help from the UN; its Western members, however, did not intervene because no one wanted to start a new war with the nuclear-armed Soviets.

No one in the U.S. military will be punished for killing 10 innocent people in Kabul, Afghanistan, this past August as the international coalition raced to leave the city ahead of the Taliban’s Sept. 1 deadline, the Pentagon announced Monday.
“I do not anticipate there being issues of personal accountability to be had with respect to the August 29th airstrike,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.
“What we saw here was a breakdown in process and execution in procedural events,” Kirby continued, “not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, [and] not the result of poor leadership.”
One big question observers are left asking: “How can our military wrongly take the lives of 10 precious Afghan people and hold no one accountable in any way?” Eric Schmitt of the New York Times has more, here.
AP’s coverage:Afghan victims saddened US drone strike to go unpunished,” Kathy Gannon reports from Kabul. 

Ukraine’s president is headed to NATO HQs on Thursday, the alliance announced today from Brussels. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hosts Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the two have planned a press conference with reporters shortly afterward.
Azerbaijan’s president already dropped by NATO today, and Georgia’s prime minister has a one-on-one with Stoltenberg planned for Wednesday. The alliance’s PR shop has more on today’s visit with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, here.

Deputy SecDef Kathleen Hicks dropped by NORAD and Space Command in Colorado on Monday. The visits were part of a five-state tour this week to review progress with various emerging tech applications across military bases from Michigan to Hawaii.
At Space Command, Hicks saw a multinational drill called SPACE FLAG 22-1, which the Pentagon said in a statement is “the first coalition space exercise to use modeling and simulation.” Stops in Nebraska, California and Hawaii are next for the deputy Pentagon chief.
Related reading:U.S. Space Force holds war game to test satellite network under attack,” Reuters reports, traveling with the DepSecDef. 

And lastly today: Think America’s defense budget is too big? It’ll probably get bigger, Todd Harrison and Seamus Daniels of the Center for Strategic and International studies warn in a new assessment of the FY 2022 defense budget.
Two issues to watch: “Inflation and the annual pay raise,” Daniels tweeted. That’s because “The employment cost index (ECI, which the pay raise is set to) published in Sept 2021 is 4.6%.” That would produce “the highest pay raise for military personnel in 20 years” and the highest for civilians since 2002.
Just holding steady with today’s troops and equipment will also be more expensive, and will likely “require [military personnel] and [operation and maintenance] costs to grow at a rate of roughly 2 to 3 percent above inflation annually,” Harrison and Daniels write. What is more still, peering ahead to next year, the White House “may request a level that is 5 percent or higher” than this year’s “in nominal terms, but when accounting for inflation and higher payroll costs, the real change in funding could be minimal or even negative.”
And this suggests the classic “people or equipment” question emerges again for the U.S. military (similar to, e.g., the 1930s, as Angry Staff Officer explained in a recent Defense One Radio podcast). Harrison and Daniels call this an “inherent tension between force size and modernization.” Read over their 30-plus page report in its entirety, here.