Today's D Brief: SecDef Austin's virtual week; CVN-75 in the Med; Saudi-China missile program; And a bit more.

COVID puts SecDef Austin on a virtual work week. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, right at the end of the Defense Department’s holiday leave and three days after his last visit to the Pentagon. Austin joins a growing list of high-profile positive cases, including athletes and pop stars across the globe. 

“My symptoms are mild, and I am following my physician’s directions,” the secretary said in a statement. “In keeping with those directions, and in accordance with CDC guidelines, I will quarantine myself at home for the next five days.”

For the record: Austin is vaccinated and boosted, which “have rendered the infection much more mild than it would otherwise have been,” he said. “And I am grateful for that. The vaccines work and will remain a military medical requirement for our workforce. I continue to encourage everyone eligible for a booster shot to get one. This remains a readiness issue.”

In case you were wondering: “I will retain all authorities,” Austin said, and added, “To the degree possible, I plan to attend virtually this coming week those key meetings and discussions required to inform my situational awareness and decision making…Deputy Secretary [Kathleen] Hicks will represent me as appropriate in other matters.”

Panning out: A snowy winter storm is sweeping through the National Capital Region today, likely cancelling some vaccination sites in the area. 

For the rest of us:As Omicron uncertainty mounts, return-to-office plans are being revised again,” the New York Times reports this morning. 

By the way: 13 U.S. Border Patrol agents died of COVID while “in the line of duty” in 2021, making the year the deadliest ever for the service (the previous high was six in 1998). The only two other “line-of-duty” deaths in 2021 were from vehicle-related accidents, according to Customs and Border Protection data. RIP, officers

See also:COVID was the top cause of death for [police] officers in 2021,” Albuquerque’s KOAT news reported on Dec. 29; and “COVID kills South Florida police more often than gunfire,” the Associated Press reported on Dec. 18.  

The U.S. Marine Corps has kicked out more than 200 troops for refusing a COVID vaccine, Politico reported over the holidays. Otherwise, “The Air Force has separated 27 airmen, while the Army and Navy are waiting until January to discharge soldiers and sailors for refusing the vaccine.” More here.

For the first time ever, Twitter permanently banned a U.S. lawmaker’s personal account for repeatedly violating the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was banned from Twitter on Sunday—although Greene’s separate, professional account remains active. 

MTG distributed her response via Telegram, which has hosted ISIS-linked accounts for years. “Twitter is an enemy to America and can’t handle the truth,” Greene said Sunday. Reuters has more, here.


From Defense One

Defense One Radio, Ep. 94: 2021, in review // Defense One Staff : We review some of the biggest ideas discussed this year on the podcast.

2021 Top Ten: COVID // Defense One Staff : Vaccines arrived, but so did vaccine refusal and new variants. And a two-year Army effort may produce the best vaccine yet.

2021 Top Ten: Army  // Defense One Staff : The Army took strides in its version of the Pentagon's connect-everything plan. But leaders said more changes are ahead.

2021 Top Ten: Navy // Defense One Staff : The sea service moved ahead with new warship ideas and tested new warfighting concepts. But will they win over Congress?

2021 Top Ten: Air Force // Defense One Staff : The emergency evacuation from Kabul, unprecedented in scope and speed, was the operational highlight of the year.

2021 Top Ten: Space Force // Defense One Staff : In a year when the military's newest service turned two, there remain plenty of unsettled policy areas.

2021 Top Ten: Marine Corps // Defense One Staff : Plenty of changes are coming to the Corps as its commandant seeks nimbler units and a modern approach to recruiting and retention.

2021 Top Ten: Ideas // Defense One Staff : The intertwined need to confront China and climate change, turning the tables on Russian psyops, and more.

2021 Top Ten: Policy // Defense One Staff : From domestic extremism to China's challenges to lingering Mideast operations, defense leaders had their hands full.

2021 Top Ten: Tech // Defense One Staff : Along with AI and JADC2, the year's top tech stories include the Army's December announcement of a vaccine that covers all possible COVID variants.

2021 Top Ten: Business // Defense One Staff : Industry hailed the Pentagon's cashflow assistance as personnel and supply-chain woes mounted. Now inflation might be the biggest concern.

Welcome to the first D Brief newsletter of 2022, brought to you by Ben Watson and Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day two years ago, Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike as he was riding in an automobile on the edge of Baghdad International Airport. Five days later, Iran unleashed “the largest ballistic-missile attack ever by any nation on American troops,” as the New Yorker’s Robin Wright reported in the latest issue. “No Americans died, but a hundred and ten suffered traumatic brain injuries…One died by suicide in October. Eighty have been awarded Purple Hearts.”
Here are a few other links from the Middle East recognizing this day:


Over the Christmas break, SecDef Austin ordered a carrier strike group to stay in the Mediterranean instead of rolling through the Suez canal and on to the Middle East, as originally planned, according to the U.S. Naval Institute News.
Involved: The USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), which remained somewhere “in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy,” USNI reported on Dec. 28.
Why remain in the Med? To “reassure European allies of U.S commitment to regional security, one [defense] official said without mentioning the ongoing Russian military buildup on the eastern border of Ukraine.”
Dig deeper:Russia-Ukraine Conflict Lies in the Bones of an 11th-Century Prince,” via the Wall Street Journal

Surprise, surprise (though not really): Saudi Arabia is making its own ballistic missiles with China’s help, CNN reported two days before Christmas. Satellite imagery from late October and early November would seem to back up this assessment, which CNN says comes from U.S. intelligence agencies.
However, “little is known about the ballistic missiles that Saudi Arabia is building at this site, including important details like range and payload.” Continue reading, here

ICYMI: Iran tried, but failed to send a rocket into orbit on Dec. 30, a military spokesman said the following day, according to Reuters reporting on New Year's Eve. Three “devices” were reportedly onboard, but the rocket failed to reach a fast-enough speed.
BTW: China says Elon Musk’s satellites nearly hit its space station back in July and October of last year, AP reported from Beijing.
Background: Musk’s “SpaceX plans to launch some 2,000 Starlink satellites as part of a global internet system to bring internet access to underserved areas,” AP writes. “In its 34th and latest launch, SpaceX sent 52 satellites into orbit aboard a rocket Dec. 18.” Read on at AP, here; or catch our 2020 podcast on satellites in space, here.  

Think U.S. inflation is high? The Turks have it much worse, Reuters reported Monday from Istanbul, where inflation has reached 36% (compared to 6.8% in the U.S., as of November). Now the latest forecasts from economists warn that Turkish inflation could soar to over 50% by the spring.
“Only seven countries posted higher rates of inflation last year, including Venezuela, Sudan, Lebanon, and Syria,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Why it matters: “The economic turmoil has also hit [President Recep] Erdogan’s opinion polls ahead of a tough election scheduled for no later than mid-2023,” Reuters writes.
In the meantime, “Many queued last month for subsidised bread in Istanbul, where the municipality says the cost of living is up 50% in a year.” And that’s leading Erdogan to lean heavily on exports as a buffer against further destabilization of the Turkish currency, the lira. The lira lost 44% of its value last year as the Turkish economy nose-dived, leading to the worst year for the lira since late 2002, which was just “two months before Erdogan's AK Party first took office,” according to Reuters. More here.

NDAA is now law. President Biden on Dec. 27 signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, known as the NDAA, for fiscal 2022. The bill includes a 2.7 percent pay increase for service members and Defense Department civilians, creates a commission to study the 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and makes significant changes to the military justice system. (If you have a lot of time on your hands, read the full bill here)

And lastly today: Close the book for good on 2021 for good with this annual review from Task & Purpose’s Jeff Schogol, who gives the Pentagon several failing grades on a few big issues like leaving Afghanistan and responding to the Jan. 6 riots.
On the bright side, Russia, China, Britain, U.S. and France say no one can win nuclear war,” Reuters reports today from Moscow, which is sure to draw a significant amount of attention in the days and weeks ahead.

NEXT STORY: 2021 Top Ten: COVID

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