Today's D Brief: Nord Stream mystery continues; Putin's annexation timeline; 18 more HIMARS to Ukraine; Pacific Summit in DC; And a bit more.

Sweden’s coast guard says it found a fourth leak on the Nord Stream pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Europe. Three leaks were found earlier this week after gas was seen bubbling to the surface of the Baltic Sea, near the Danish island of Bornholm. According to Stockholm’s Coast Guard, “There are currently two gas leaks in Swedish waters, a larger leak above North Stream 1, and a smaller leak above North Stream 2.” The distance between those two is one nautical mile, or 1.8 km. There are also two reported leaks in Danish waters; and the closest is 2.6 nautical miles, or 4.6 km, from those leaks in Sweden’s waters. 

NATO says the leaks appear to be “deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” according to a statement from the 30-nation alliance published Thursday. “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response,” the alliance added.

According to Russia, “This looks like an act of terrorism, possibly on a state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmetri Peskov said Thursday in Moscow, according to Reuters. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, says NATO is the most likely culprit because of alliance exercises conducted near Bornholm in July, state-run media TASS says. (A separate TASS report insists the U.S. would benefit from such a damaged pipeline because it would present an opportunity to increase exports of natural gas.)

Developing: Western intel officials told CNN Russian subs and support ships were observed near the leak sites just last week. However, one Danish official urged caution, since, “We see [Russian ships] every week.”  

In search of a motive, arms control wonk Jeffrey Lewis cited the work of U.S. scholar Thomas Schelling and wrote Wednesday that, “Burning bridges or setting fire to the grass behind you can offer a bargaining advantage.” That’d seem to be because, “By blocking you, the decision to collide is yours. He captured the advantageous position of deterrence, while leaving you the much harder task of compelling him to move.” Now, Lewis says, “Europe has the more difficult task of compelling Putin.”

Way out there: American far-right booster Charlie Kirk alleged U.S. spies are to blame, claiming U.S. intelligence agencies are “guilty until proven innocent in this situation; they're going to have to prove to us it wasn't them,” Kirk said this week on his livestream. The Pentagon’s response to that: “Yeah, we were absolutely not involved,” an official told Jennifer Griffin of Fox. 

While much of Europe focuses on gas leaks, Russia is about to annex four regions of occupied Ukraine. The full integration process is expected to take as long as 10 years, according to the Kremlin’s TASS news service. Reuters reports the annexation announcements will come Friday when autocratic President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign documents seizing an estimated 15% of Ukraine’s territory. State-run RIA says Putin will sign the documents at 3 p.m. local on Friday.  

 A “blatant violation of international law,” is how the Washington Post described Russia’s expected annexation of Ukraine’s four oblasts. The Economist’s Shashank Joshi called Putin’s anticipated moves “A point of no return” and the “Largest forcible annexation of European territory since WW2.” It also prevents Putin from giving the land back and it “increases [the] risk of escalation” moving forward. 

New: The Pentagon says it’s sending Ukraine 18 more HIMARS long-range artillery, which would be a notable increase from the current 16 that the U.S. has sent Kyiv, seven months into Putin’s invasion. There’s more in that package of weapons, and you can read more about it in Defense One’s coverage Wednesday, here.

Survey says: More than seven in 10 Americans support sending Ukraine more weapons, according to a new poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which spoke to citizens during the last two weeks of July. Seventy-two percent of those polled said they were in favor of sending Kyiv more arms and supplies to defend against Russia—and 65% said the same about Taiwan, should the island’s residents need U.S. military assistance in the face of a future invasion from China. 

In terms of defense spending, most want to keep it “about the same” (38%) while 29% want to expand it, and 26% favor decreasing it. Read more, including political party breakdowns, here.  

Related reading: 

From Defense One

US to Send 18 More HIMARS to Ukraine Under Latest $1B Aid Package  // Tara Copp: But they won’t be available for two years, Pentagon says.

Democrats Introduce New Path To Protect Troops’ Abortion Access  // Jacqueline Feldscher: An NDAA amendment that would give troops the time and money to cross state lines for an abortion has 23 Democratic co-sponsors.

After Big Pentagon Contract Wins, L3Harris CEO Eyes More Growth  // Marcus Weisgerber: Three years after merger of L3 Technologies and Harris, the company is striving to “compete on a level playing field,” CEO Kubasik says.

How Will the Military Use 5G? A New Drone Experiment Offers Clues // Patrick Tucker: High-speed networking promises to help bring AI to bear on floods of battlefield sensor data.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. 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 1990, the aircraft that would become America’s F-22 Raptor flew for the first time. 

North Korea fired another two missiles into the sea again on Thursday, which makes nearly three-dozen missiles the “hermit kingdom” has sent into the East Sea this calendar year.
The two missiles were launched nine minutes apart just before 9 p.m. local, and from just north of the capital city of Pyongyang, according to the South Korean military. (We don’t seem to have been given distance and apogee stats for these launches, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. (Update: “N.K. missiles flew some 350 km at apogees of around 50 km at top speed of Mach 5: S. Korean military,” Yonhap reported Thursday.)
It’s also the third such test this week, which is when several world leaders—including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris—visited the region to attend the funeral of slain Japanese former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I cannot state enough that [the] commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea is ironclad,” Harris said Wednesday while visiting a demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

Today is the second and final day of the White House’s first-ever U.S.- Pacific Island Country Summit, which continues this afternoon at the State Department in Washington, and ends with a dinner at the White House.
Why host such a summit? “U.S. prosperity and security depend on the Pacific region remaining free and open,” White House officials said in a fact sheet for the occasion. Some of the priorities on President Biden’s agenda include “climate change, pandemic and economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to the White House.
“All the Pacific nations have been invited,” an administration official told reporters Tuesday. That list includes 14 different states: the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Palau, French Polynesia, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The White House is expected to announce more than $800 million in investments for the islands, according to the Washington Post, reporting Thursday. That’s “on top of more than $1.5 billion provided in the past decade,” according to Reuters.
By the way: The president of the Marshall Islands dropped by the Pentagon on Wednesday. The islands host the U.S. Army Garrison at Kwajalein Atoll, and that includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. According to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, “The island nation faces serious challenges; China, with its efforts to subvert the rules-based system, is the main challenge, which is compounded by the effects of COVID-19 and the increasing dangers posed by climate change,” the Pentagon said in a news release after the visit.
Related reading: 

The latest from Hurricane Ian: MacDill Air Force Base is telling evacuated troops and families not to return yet; the mandatory evacuation order there remains as more than 2 million people in Florida have lost power and at least one bridge has been washed away due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian, which has since been downgraded to a Tropical Storm.
More than 3,2000 National Guard troops were standing by before the then-Category 4 storm made landfall near Ft. Myers, bringing intense wind and historic flooding. The Coast Guard rescued 13 people overnight, and today promises to be a “very busy day” of more search and rescue efforts, Rear Adm. Brendan McPherson told CBS New York on Thursday morning. “Help is on the way,” he said. The National Guard is also working on search and rescue operations this morning, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Track the storm’s progress, here

Happening today in Washington: Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall speaks at 3 p.m. at a virtual event hosted by the Center for American Progress; topics of discussion will include “Air Force and Space Force personnel, the crisis in Ukraine, competing with China, the importance of defending human rights, and the United States’ role in the world,” according to CAP’s website. Register to watch, here.

And lastly: There’s probably a U.S. military armorer somewhere who is in big trouble after news broke from the Houston area this week that at least a dozen M-16 rifles were found inside storage cases purchased off of a government surplus site for resale on eBay.
Houston’s KTRK ABC13 was alerted to the development on Monday, which—thanks to the cautious case buyers notifying authorities—led to an investigation by officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
What happened: A couple “who run a side hustle of buying surplus lots” and reselling them online acquired more than 100 of these cases, but needed a hand moving them. So a friend helped out, and noticed that at least one of the cases had something inside. That’s when they found the rifles, “all of them still with various tags designating the military branch and name of service members who handled the weapons,” ABC13 reports.
“These weapons are missing somewhere from a U.S. armory, and somebody doesn't know it,” a former Houston police captain told KTRK. “For these boxes to have M16s in them and be shipped to a public destination, not only is it shocking, it's a federal crime,” he added. Read on, here.
Related reading:US Army has hidden or downplayed loss of firearms for years,” the Associated Press reported in June of 2021.