Today's D Brief: Bracing for Russia's next offensive; US reaches hypersonic milestone; US, RoK promise more exercises; NATO's Stoltenberg in Tokyo; And a bit more.

The United States and South Korean militaries are expanding their joint exercises, which often irritate North Korea’s isolated and paranoid dictator Kim Jong-un. This new decision to broaden “the scope and scale of combined field training exercises and to conduct a large-scale combined joint fires demonstration this year” resulted from Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin’s trip to the region this week; Austin and his Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup, released an unusually lengthy joint statement recapping the main agenda after their meeting Tuesday in Seoul.

Under new management: South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk Yeol has been in office for only eight months. Yoon is known as a conservative leader with little interest in direct diplomacy with North Korea, unlike his liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in. 

But Yoon has been especially tested by Pyongyang, which launched more rockets and missiles last year than any year prior. And in late December, North Korea sent five drones over its southern neighbor, including over the capital city of Seoul—and briefly into a no-fly-zone over the president’s own office; none of the drones were shot down as they flew over South Korean territory for several hours on Dec. 26. Yoon promised a tough response to the provocation, which was the first of its kind in five years, according to an Associated Press interview with the president three weeks ago. 

Expect more of almost everything, Austin said. “We deployed fifth-generation aircraft, F-22s, and F-35s, we deployed a carrier strike group to visit the peninsula, you can look for more of that kind of activity going forward,” he told reporters Tuesday in Seoul. 

The two militaries will also begin “nuclear tabletop exercises” in February, rehearsing various responses to notional North Korean nuclear attacks, according to Reuters, reporting earlier this month. Seoul’s troops are on guard for what observers believe will be another nuclear test or demonstration from the North. It’s been expected for almost a year, but so far has not materialized. 

Next up for SecDef Austin: Travel to the Philippines. A bit more on that below. But first… 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg dropped by Tokyo on Tuesday for a meeting with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Stoltenberg visited Seoul on Monday, in part to encourage Seoul to keep up its support for Ukraine in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion; on Tuesday, he stopped by Japan’s Iruma Air Base, which is located just west of Tokyo. 

“The world is at a historical inflection point in the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II,” Fumio and Stoltenberg said in their own joint statement afterward. “Russia's aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and shaken the foundation of the rules-based international order,” they continued. “It has gravely altered the security environment in the Euro-Atlantic and beyond. The balance of power is also rapidly shifting in the Indo-Pacific, and we share the view that unilateral change of the status quo by force or coercion is not acceptable anywhere in the world.”

They also “strongly encourage[d] China to improve transparency and to cooperate constructively” on issues like arms control, disarmament, and nuclear non-proliferation (looking at you, Pyongyang). They also said there’s been no change in policy toward Taiwan, and “encourage[d] a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” Read more from that meeting via NATO, here

Developing: An announcement is expected as early as this week on a deal between the U.S. and the Philippines to secure access by the U.S. military to bases in the Western Pacific nation, the Washington Post reported Monday. That would likely include two bases on the northern island of Luzon, which “could give U.S. forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea,” analysts told the Post. Read more, here

Tech war latest: If the U.S. wants to escalate its semiconductor competition with China, there are several additional measures the White House could take, including banning lithography components, and a lot more, according to a new report from Dylan Patel of SemiAnalysis consulting group.

From the region: 

From Defense One

Test Flight Brings Hypersonic Program to Successful Close, DARPA Says // Patrick Tucker: The HAWC effort has produced two “feasible hypersonic airbreathing missile designs.”

Defense Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense Business Brief: Hyten sets up shop in the private sector; Ranking the top 6 defense companies; DARPA wraps hypersonic weapon project; and more.

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 1865, U.S. lawmakers passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, and sent it to the states for ratification. It would be another four months before the Civil War came to an end, and another six months before the new amendment was finally ratified in early December. 

Ukraine and its allies are bracing for a coming Russian ground offensive pushing out from occupied territory, particularly in the Donbas region. That’s according to the latest analysis from the Institute for the Study of War, which cites recent warnings from officials in Kyiv and across NATO. ISW writes that some kind of Russian offensive seems to make sense “in the coming months,” in part because of winter temperatures that keep the ground from turning into a mess of mud and stuck vehicles.
Weapons watch: The U.S. will not be sending F-16s to Ukraine, President Joe Biden told reporters Monday from the South Lawn of the White House. He also said he’s planning to travel to Poland soon, but he didn’t say when.
The British army is the smallest since the days of Napoleon, and is “unable to protect the UK and our allies,” defense sources told the UK’s Sky News. A U.S. general broke the news that the Brits are “no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force” to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace privately, the media outlet reports. That’s particularly problematic in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, since apparently the British military would run out of ammunition in just a few days if asked to fight, and the UK does not have the ability to defend itself against the type of missile and drone attacks happening now in Ukraine.
So, how can they fix it? That will require dramatically increasing the defense budget, throwing out a plan to make the army even smaller, and “easing peacetime procurement rules that obstruct the UK’s ability to buy weapons and ammunition at speed,” writes Sky’s Deborah Haynes. 
For your ears only: Get three wonks’ perspectives on what might come next in the Ukraine war after listening to the latest podcast episode from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carnegie’s Alexander Gabuev spoke to Russia experts Mark Galeotti of the Royal United Services Institute, and RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot. We just found out about it this morning, so we haven’t heard it yet—but all three of those experts are typically very insightful. Details, here.
Lastly: From smartphones to washing machines and computer chips, Russia’s allies “like Turkey, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are stepping in to provide Russia with many of the products that Western countries have tried to cut off as punishment for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine,” the New York Times reported Tuesday.
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