Today's D Brief: Taiwan practices island defense; China trying to improve 'blockade ops'; At least 70K Russian casualties in Ukraine; Renaming commission price tag; And a bit more.

China’s navy and air force are still wargaming close to Taiwan’s coast, where some 20 vessels from the two militaries are squaring off near the unofficial median line of the Taiwan Strait, while Taiwan’s navy is trying to keep international sealanes open, a security source in the region told Reuters, reporting from Taipei on Tuesday. 

Taiwan just began its own two-day drills practicing defense of the island, the Wall Street Journal reports from the region, careful to note that these are annual drills that were scheduled months in advance. The exercise so far involved 38 howitzers and some 700 troops launching more than 100 shells into waters south of Taiwan. 

Forty-five Chinese aircraft were spotted flying around the island on Tuesday, which is a slight uptick from the day prior, Taiwan’s defense ministry announced on Twitter. Tuesday’s drills included 16 of Beijing’s jets that traveled along the “east part of the median line of the Taiwan Strait,” according to Taipei. Thirty-nine Chinese aircraft carried out broadly similar actions on Monday—with 20 jets and one anti-submarine helicopter that flew just east of that median line.

The view from the capital: Invasion prep. Taiwan’s top diplomat told reporters he believes China is using the ongoing drills “to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan,” and may soon “try to routinise its action in an attempt to wreck the long-term status quo across the Taiwan Strait” and advance “China's geostrategic ambitions beyond Taiwan.” And more broadly, China’s military “is conducting large-scale military exercises and missile launches, as well as cyberattacks, disinformation, and economic coercion, in an attempt to weaken public morale in Taiwan,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters in Taipei. 

Beijing says that the ongoing drills are designed to improve its “joint blockade and joint support operations,” according to a statement from China’s Eastern Military Command.

The Pentagon says: “Clearly the [People’s Republic of China] is trying to coerce Taiwan, clearly they're trying to coerce the international community, and all I'll say is we're not going to take the bait and it's not going to work,” the U.S. military’s #3 official, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. 

“That doesn't mean we have to play into that,” he added. “I think it would only play to Beijing's advantage. What we'll do instead is to continue to fly, to sail, and to operate wherever international law allows us to do so, and that includes in the Taiwan Strait, and we will continue to stand by our allies and partners in the region.”

“We're at a moment of profound international tension,” and “nothing that China has done has surprised us,” Kahl said Monday. “We anticipated that, you know, the visit would make news and that the leadership in Beijing would present it as being provocative and would seek to manufacture the crisis that we now see unfolding before us.”

Most concerning, said Kahl, are “the sheer number of maritime and air assets that are crossing over this kind of de facto center line, creeping closer to Taiwan's shores, where it's clear that Beijing is trying to create a kind of new normal, with the goal of trying to coerce Taiwan, but also frankly, to coerce the international community, given the importance of the Taiwan Strait to the global economy.” And that’s why the U.S. is going to “continue to operate, to fly, to sail wherever international waters allows. That includes the Taiwan Strait.”

Looking ahead, he said, “I think you should expect that we will continue to do Taiwan Strait transits, as we have in the past, in the coming weeks.” The U.S. Navy will also “continue to do freedom of navigation operations elsewhere in the region. We will continue to stand by our allies and partners,” and “maintain the status quo of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which frankly is what I think most of the countries in the region would prefer.”

A second opinion: The U.S. reaction so far of essentially “standing back and rolling our eyes,” said Mike Mazarr of RAND Corp., “is a critical strategic decision that's not getting the attention it deserves. It's probably sensible, but with a lot of potential for unanticipated effects,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “In one sense it's brilliant: Beijing looks belligerent and a little unhinged,” he writes. However, “we could also be setting expectations in Beijing that, when it wants to blow off steam, the U.S. will sit by and watch.” And that would seem to suggest White House officials “need to be thinking quickly [and] deeply about how we reset the status quo, including expectations of what we'll tolerate.”

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Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson and Jacqueline Feldscher. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1945, the last use of nuclear weapons in war occurred when the U.S. dropped its “Fat Man” atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 35,000 people in a single terrifying detonation. 

A Russian airbase in occupied Crimea appears to have been attacked with some kind of explosive, according to multiple videos that surfaced on social media Tuesday. Russia-watcher Rob Lee has begun a Twitter thread compiling clips of the explosions, and you can review those here.
Location: Near the Saki Airbase, “which is home to the Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Naval Attack Aviation Regiment,” Lee writes.
New: Russia has lost between 70,000 to 80,000 troops to injuries and deaths, according to the Pentagon’s Colin Kahl. “That number might be a little lower, a little higher, but I think that's kind of in the ballpark,” he told reporters Monday. And that is, in his opinion, “pretty remarkable considering that the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin's objectives at the beginning of the war.” Which is to say, “his overall objective was to overrun the entire country, to engage in regime change in Kyiv, to snuff out Ukraine as an independent, sovereign and democratic nation. None of that has happened.”
How long can Russia keep losing troops? “It's an interesting question and not one I can answer with a high degree of certainty,” Kahl said. “Obviously, Russia's a very large country. Now, you know, a lot of it would depend, I think, on the political decisions that Vladimir Putin will make ultimately about whether he can continue to recruit and send additional forces to the front, whether he was at some point, you know, willing to engage in national mobilization or some other effort.”
Also: Some 3,000 or 4,000 Russian armored vehicles have been destroyed. And that’s “because of the anti-armor systems like Javelin, like the AT-4s,” Kahl said. But U.S.-led export controls on technologies like microchips are expected to hasten Russia’s rebuilding efforts considerably.
Sanctions are already hitting Russia’s aviation industry, which has begun stripping aircraft for spare parts, Reuters reported Monday from Moscow. “At least one Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100 and a [new] Airbus A350, both operated by Aeroflot, are currently grounded and being disassembled, one source familiar with the matter said.”
The British military says Russian troops in the east have only advanced 10 km in the past 30 days. That’s around the town of Bakhmut. “In other Donbas sectors where Russia was attempting to break through, its forces have not gained more than 3 km during this 30 day period; almost certainly significantly less than planned.”
Why? “Despite its continued heavy use of artillery in these areas, Russia has not been able to generate capable combat infantry in sufficient numbers to secure more substantial advances,” the Brits say. Elsewhere, “Russian forces are deploying less-professional occupation forces and increasing pressure on Ukrainian populations in occupied areas,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War write in their latest assessment, citing Ukrainian officials. That includes “checkpoints in Kherson Oblast, particularly in Hola Prystan.”
Ukrainians also allege instances of violent dissent among Russian troops, some of whom reportedly “shot and killed the Chechen deputy commander of a unit in Zaporizhia for ethnically motivated reasons.”
Bigger picture consideration: “Russian forces may increasingly deploy low-quality, poorly trained units, like those made up of convicts, to control populations in occupied parts of Ukraine,” ISW warns. “Such deployments may reduce the competence of occupation authorities and counter-partisan operations and may increase Ukrainian support for movements that resist Russia’s occupation.” More here.
For what it’s worth, we now have an alleged new window into the minds of ordinary Russians, thanks to recent polling from Russian newspaper Kommersant. More than 6 in 10 polled think the Ukraine invasion is a success so far, and they’d support taking control of Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. Perhaps strangely, 65% said they’d approve of an immediate ceasefire; and 52% support continuing the ongoing invasion.
Said Alexander Clarkson of King’s College London: “That sounds to me like people saying ‘we'll back whatever the government does, now go away and don't ask again please.’”
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And lastly today: It’s probably going to cost more than $21 million to rename nine U.S. Army bases with Confederate ties, according to a report released Monday by the Naming Commission. The commission shared the new names for each base in May, but the first part of the final report released this week is the first glimpse we get at the cost of doing so, Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports.
The most expensive base to rename is Fort Bragg, at more than $6.3 million; and the cheapest is the Virginia National Guard base Fort Pickett, at just over $300,000. The report also includes a list of all assets with names honoring the Confederacy at each base that will need to be changed, from recycling bin decals to fire station signs to street names that honor Confederate troops, such as Mosby Road on Fort A.P. Hill, Va. Though the commission already selected new names for the nine bases, it provides a list of suggestions that bases can use to rename more minor assets on base, such as geographical areas, streets, and buildings.
The report released Monday is the first of three expected to be delivered to Congress before Oct. 1. The second portion will cover assets at West Point and the Naval Academy, while the third part will cover any Defense Department assets not included in the first two sections. Read over the full report released Monday, here.