Today's D Brief: How lawmakers plan to spend $860B on defense; 25 far-right extremists arrested in German coup plot; More US troops to Australia; AQ in Afghanistan; And a bit more.

How will the U.S. likely spend almost $860 billion for its national defense in the year ahead? We have a much better idea now that Senate and House leaders have agreed to a new defense policy bill, which was published on Tuesday evening just a few hours before midnight. According to Armed Services committee leaders in both chambers, “The final text of the bill promotes resilience, innovation, and the right tools for U.S. success in strategic competition, and provides vital quality of life improvements,” including a 4.6% pay raise for troops and civilians after months of rising inflation.  

Perhaps most notably, the $858 billion bill repeals the Pentagon’s Covid vaccine mandate, which was first implemented in last year’s defense policy bill. The repeal—against the White House’s wishes—would go into effect within 30 days of the president signing the law, which could possibly happen before Christmas. (President Biden put his signature on last year’s NDAA two days after Christmas.) However, the current text does not require the military to reinstate troops booted for refusing to take a Covid vaccine, as Politico pointed out Tuesday evening. 

More key personnel changes: 

  • Army end strength has been reduced to 452,000 troops, which is down from last year’s overly ambitious 485,000 target, which the service missed in part by recruiting about 15,000 fewer troops than expected this past fiscal year; 
  • The Marines are also expected to shrink, though by a lot less—177,000 for the year ahead, compared to 178,500 authorized the year prior; 
  • The Air Force will shrink by about 4,000 airmen, falling to 325,344 compared to 329,220 this year; 
  • In contrast, the Navy has been tasked with adding about 7,000 sailors, raising last year’s total from 346,920 to 354,000; 
  • And the Space Force will add about 200 Guardians, rising to about 8,600 troops in the newest branch of the armed forces. 

In terms of planes and ships, etc., five F-35A jets are expected, as well as 15 F-35Bs, and 16 F-35Cs. Ten more HH-60W helicopters and four EC-37B Compass Call aircraft are also newly funded in the bill. And more than $32 billion has been set aside for new ships, including 11 “battle force” vessels—three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; two Virginia-class submarines; two expeditionary fast transports; one Constellation-class frigate; one San Antonio-class amphibious ship; one John Lewis-class oiler; and one Navajo-class towing, salvage, and rescue ship.

New: Ukraine is set to get about $800 million in military assistance next year, and oversight of U.S. funding to Ukraine is a part of the plan, too. (It’s worth noting that the White House only requested $300 million for Ukraine; lawmakers more than doubled that.) Another almost three billion dollars have been set aside to boost munitions production for items like artillery rounds and missiles used in Ukraine. 

The bill includes up to $10 billion in military spending for Taiwan over the next five years. Lawmakers also ordered the military to produce a report reviewing China’s “strategy for the use of force against Taiwan, including…adjustments based on how the Russian military has performed in Ukraine”; and they want an assessment of increased U.S.-Taiwan economic cooperation, as well as a review of “China’s nuclear threat in escalation dynamics.”

Congress also wants a quarterly review of how China might be helping Russia achieve its objectives in Ukraine, including sanctions evasion and semiconductor sales. Quarterly reports on security and cooperation with law enforcement along America’s southwest border are also called for in the new NDAA. 

Assessments of Iranian drone exports and Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons are mandated in the compromise bill’s text, as are security and economic reviews for the nation of Niger, which hosts U.S. special operations forces engaged in counterterrorism operations across Africa. 

Another $165 million would go to training U.S. military partners in Syria as part of the ongoing war against ISIS terrorists in the region. And speaking of terrorism, the U.S. military detention facility at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay just got another year-long lease on life. 

In terms of new and emerging defense technologies, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is getting $75 million for artificial intelligence, and another $20 million for quantum computing; $85 million is set aside for advanced "jamming protection, electronic warfare and signature measurement"; $120 million will go toward 5G research and equipment; almost $300 million is devoted to new hypersonics research; and there’s lots of cyber-related funding, including an additional $50 million to develop AI systems at Cyber Command. 

In case you were wondering, “Taiwan” was mentioned 438 times in the document; “China” 266; “Russia” 237; “Ukraine” 159 times; “Iran” 125; “North Korea” 42; “vaccine” 19 times; “border security” just eight times; and the word “diversity” was used 47 times, while the word “woke” did not make any appearances. 

The NDAA also includes more changes to Pentagon sexual assault policy; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told Defense One’s Jennifer Hlad she views it as “sort of a culmination of the last 15 years of work.” The provision builds on last year’s mandate to create a special trial counsel to handle 11 crimes—including sexual assault and murder—by adding to the list of crimes for that special trial prosecutor to handle and removing all remaining prosecutorial duties out of the accused’s chain of command for those crimes. Take a deep dive into those reforms, and the background on that 15-year-long fight, in the first story in Hlad’s three-part series on sexual assault in the military, here

Read more: Find the full NDAA text (PDF) here. Or review a summary from congressional leaders, here

From Defense One

Explosions at Russian Air Bases May Change Several Nations’ Calculations // Patrick Tucker: Moscow says Ukraine converted old Soviet drones into long-range weapons that struck hundreds of miles inside Russian territory.

After a Spike in Sexual Assaults on Troops, Is Real Change on the Way? // Jennifer Hlad: The 2023 defense policy bill will close a prosecutorial loophole that advocates say has been preventing justice for victims of rape, harassment, and other crimes.

Google Cloud Gets DOD's Blessing. But Will It Win Contracts? // Lauren C. Williams: Within days, the Pentagon is expected to announce winners of its up-to-$9 billion tactical cloud effort.

Ending COVID-Vax Mandate Would Divide Troops into Two Classes, Navy Secretary Says // Caitlin M. Kenney: The military would consist of “those that can’t deploy and those that can deploy. And that creates all sorts of problems,” Carlos Del Toro told lawmakers.

Welcome to this Wednesday 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. On this day in 1949, more than two million Chinese nationalists soldiers and supporters fled mainland China to live on the island of Taiwan following their loss to Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party after more than two decades of civil war.

German authorities just arrested more than two dozen far-right “terrorists” who’d planned to overthrow the government in Berlin. Their plan—inspired by Q-Anon-linked conspiracists—involved storming parliament while armed and led by former paratroopers and even current soldiers in Germany’s military. “The suspects were linked to the so-called Reich Citizens movement, whose adherents reject Germany’s postwar constitution and have called for bringing down the government,” the Associated Press reports from the capital. According to Reuters, members of the group “do not recognise modern-day Germany as a legitimate state,” and some “are adherents of Nazi ideas [while] others believe Germany is under military occupation.”
More than 3,000 police officers helped arrest 25 members of the group at 130 different locations in Germany, Italy, and Austria, according to German prosecutors. “The members of the organization understood that their endeavor could only be realized by using military means and violence against representatives of the state. This includes committing murders,” the prosecutor said Wednesday. Twenty-seven others are still under investigation. Germany’s Der Spiegel has more behind its paywall, here

New: The U.S. will start sending an unspecified number of more “air, land, and sea forces” on rotations to Australia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Tuesday in a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in D.C.
The relationship between the U.S. and Australia is an “unbreakable alliance,” Austin said, and the two countries “share a vision of a region where countries can determine their own futures… free from coercion and intimidation.” Because of that vision, and China’s threatening actions in the Indo-Pacific, “We will increase rotational presence of U.S. forces in Australia. That includes rotations of bomber task forces, fighters, and future rotations of U.S. Navy and U.S. Army capabilities,” Austin said.

Think al-Qaeda isn’t still in Afghanistan? Think again, argues longtime Afghan-watcher Bill Roggio in a new multimedia project published Wednesday by the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Included: A detailed, open-source list and timeline of more than three dozen AQ leaders killed or captured inside Afghanistan, including the U.S. strike in July that killed emir Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul. According to Roggio, “hundreds” of other lower level al-Qaeda commanders, fighters and operatives have been killed during operations going back to 2010.
“Afghanistan isn’t over just because we left,” Roggio writes. “We’re simply back to where we were pre-9/11, but without the insight we had from working with the Northern Alliance, which now no longer exists.” Dive into this new multifaceted report, here.
By the way: The Afghan Taliban just carried out their first known public execution since retaking power in August 2021. Agence France-Presse has the story from Kabul, here.
Related reading: As the World Focuses on Soccer, a Women’s Team in Exile Aches to Play,” the New York Times reported Saturday in a somewhat heart-breaking feature.

And lastly: Don’t forget to join us tomorrow for our Outlook 2023 virtual event series, which features panels on the future of defense spending and the industrial base; science and technology investments; and the international politics that shape defense policy. Details and registration, here.