Today's D Brief: Explosion kills more than 60 Russian troops; Ukraine's air defense is improving; Sikorsky, Boeing submit protests; China keeps up Taiwan tensions; And a bit more.

It’s day 314 of the Russian military’s Ukraine invasion, which finds Vladimir Putin’s occupying forces picking up the pieces after suffering one of their deadliest attacks yet late last week when explosions rocked a temporary barracks building on a college campus in the eastern Ukrainian city of Makiivka, in Donetsk. The barracks were established near an ammunition depot, which appeared to have caught fire after the strike. 

The explosions killed at least 63 soldiers, according to Moscow’s defense ministry, which attributed the attack to the U.S.-made HIMARS long-range artillery system. The Associated Press obtained footage of cranes sifting through the rubble Tuesday in Makiivka. Aric Toler of Bellingcat published before and after satellite imagery from above the barracks (cloudy weather restricted what could be seen over several days) over on Twitter, here

As before, Russia spent much of the holiday break sending wave after wave of missile and drone strikes toward Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. One such attack triggered a Ukrainian air defense missile, which eventually landed in neighboring Belarus; Reuters has more on that event, here. Nearly a dozen regions suffered significant damage from Russian strikes, as AP reported separately on Dec. 29.

The latest: Kyiv says it’s bracing for a “prolonged attack” using Iranian-made Shahed drones, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy said Monday evening. “Its bet may be on exhaustion—on exhaustion of our people, our air defense, our energy sector,” he said in his nightly address. “Only two days have passed since the beginning of the year, and the number of Iranian drones shot down over Ukraine is already more than eighty,” he said. “This number may increase in the near future,” he warned. 

After several weeks of intense assaults and counterattacks in Donetsk, the British military says “It is unlikely Russia will achieve a significant breakthrough” at the long-sought city of Bakhmut in the weeks ahead. Now, “Russian offensive operations in the area are now likely being conducted at only platoon or section level.” And that, the Brits say, is because “Over the last ten days, Ukraine has committed significant reinforcements” to the area, “and the frequency of Russian assaults have likely reduced from the peak in mid-December.” As a result, “Both sides have suffered high casualties,” UK officials said Tuesday. 

Ukraine is dispatching a variety of means to intercept the drones, including “organizing mobile groups to hunt them down, using jeeps and other vehicles equipped with anti-aircraft machine guns and searchlights,” Reuters reported Tuesday from Makiivka.

And those Ukrainians allegedly intercepted all drones launched over a two-day period, beginning on New Year's Eve when 45 of the Iranian-made Shaheds were shot down—and 39 out of 39 were downed the following evening, according to Ukraine’s air force.

Also notable: “Russian forces only have enough cruise missiles to conduct two to three more large-scale missile attacks against Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote Monday evening, citing Ukrainian intelligence officials remarks over the weekend. 

Review five ways the Ukraine war could go in 2023 via a tidy and sobering analysis published by the BBC on Dec. 27. 

Additional reading: 


From Defense One

Sikorsky and Boeing Challenge Army Decision to Replace Black Hawk with Bell V-280 Tiltrotor // Marcus Weisgerber: The Government Accountability Office has 100 days to review the deal.

Senate Reaches Breakthrough and Passes $1.7T Omnibus Funding Bill  // Eric Katz: Measure now heads to the House ahead of Friday's shutdown deadline.

More Money For Info Ops, Army Recruiting, Cyber In Omnibus // Lauren C. Williams: Bill would also boost defense research funding once again.

Happy New Year, and welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to this newsletter, you can do that here. On this day in 2020, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad international airport. 


President Joe Biden signed the new $858 billion defense policy bill just before Christmas, but not without flagging his “concern” about House and Senate lawmakers’ decisions to maintain certain funding restrictions affecting the U.S. military’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. According to the White House, these prohibitions tie the hands of U.S. officials involved “in delicate negotiations with foreign countries over the potential transfer of detainees” out of the facilities. “I urge the Congress to eliminate these restrictions as soon as possible,” Biden said in a statement.
That defense policy bill passed both chambers as part of a $1.7 trillion omnibus package that lawmakers approved just before the break, avoiding a federal shutdown. Our colleague Erik Katz of GovExec has an omnibus topline read, here; CNN breaks down its contents, here. And House lawmakers offered their own summary (PDF), here; or read the full text (PDF), here.
For Biden, “This bill is further proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to deliver for the American people, and I’m looking forward to continued bipartisan progress in the year ahead,” the president said in a separate statement over the holiday. More here

China stepped up its military posturing near Taiwan last week, sending 71 aircraft—including more than 30 fighter jets and seven military planes—toward the island one day after Christmas. Nearly 50 of those planes crossed the unofficial boundary in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, AP and Reuters reported. Taiwan’s official news agency called it the “largest Chinese air force incursion to date,” Reuters noted.
Beijing’s growing hostility just led Taiwan to increase its mandatory military service requirement from four months to one year, a move that was announced Dec. 27. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called the decision “incredibly difficult,” but said that “As long as Taiwan is strong enough, it will be the home of democracy and freedom all over the world, and it will not become a battlefield.”
Also: The U.S. could soon sell Taiwan about $180 million in Volcano Anti-Tank weapons, according to a State Department announcement Wednesday. The package would include 10-ton cargo trucks, since the weapons are vehicle-mounted. Northrop Grumman would be the principal contractor; more details here.
ICYMI: A Chinese fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane with an “unsafe maneuver,” forcing the RC-135 Rivet Joint to take evasive actions to avoid a crash, CNN reported Dec. 29
A second opinion: Former U.S. Air Force reconnaissance pilot Robert Hoskins shared his thoughts and some of his experience when it comes to aerial interceptions—including fatal ones—in a Twitter thread Friday, here.
From the region: 

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