Today's D Brief: US, S. Korea update nuke deal; Arms-production bottlenecks; Ukraine combat video; Robot CSAR?; And a bit more.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is dropping by the Pentagon this afternoon for discussions with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and others. That’s expected around 3:30 p.m. ET, and neither Austin nor Yoon are expected to speak to reporters. 

Yoon and President Joe Biden upgraded their two countries’ nuclear defense plans in a joint agreement known as the “Washington Declaration,” released Wednesday by the White House. The deal permits the U.S. Navy to periodically deploy a nuclear-armed submarine off the Korean coast in exchange for Seoul agreeing to not create or obtain its own nuclear weapons. 

The deal marks 70 years of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and reaffirms “that any nuclear attack by the [North] against the [South Korea] will be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response,” according to the text of the declaration. It also allows RoK officials to play a part in U.S. nuclear contingency planning for the peninsula, under the rubric of a “Nuclear Consultative Group,” should North Korea carry out a nuclear attack. The additional measures include “a new table-top exercise conducted with U.S. Strategic Command,” which oversees America’s nuclear weapons and assets around the world. 

One wonk’s reax: “South Korea joins a small club of countries who used the mere threat of acquiring atomic weapons to wrest concessions from the United States,” said Tristan Anderson Volpe of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, writing Wednesday on Twitter. “This strategy is not new,” he notes. “During the Cold War, for example, West Germany used investments in nuclear energy technology to put pressure on Washington for stronger security commitments.” Volpe elaborates further, here

Reminder: North Korea set an annual record for missile tests last year, and it’s expected to carry out its next nuclear weapons test—Pyongyang’s seventh—at any point in the coming weeks, as Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace noted Wednesday on Twitter. 

“Sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula does not happen automatically,” Yoon told reporters Wednesday while standing beside Biden in the Rose Garden. “Our two leaders have decided to significantly strengthen extended deterrence of our two countries against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats so that we can achieve peace through the superiority of overwhelming forces and not a false peace based on the goodwill of the other side,” he said.  

“I have absolute authority as Commander-in-Chief and the sole authority to use a nuclear weapon,” Biden reminded reporters Wednesday in the Rose Garden. “But, you know, what the declaration means is that we’re going [to] make every effort to consult with our allies when it’s appropriate.” He then stressed, “we’re not going to be stationing nuclear weapons on the Peninsula; but we will have port visits of nuclear submarines and things like that. We are not walking away from that.”

“Look, a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or partners is unacceptable,” Biden said, “and will result in the end of whatever regime, were it to take such an action.” 

Not everyone in South Korea was pleased with the declaration. That includes the country’s right-leaning conservative newspaper Chosun, which published an op-ed Thursday criticizing the agreement for not going far enough. “[I]t seems [the] U.S. is more worried about [South Korean] nuclear development than about neutralizing/incapacitating [North Korean] nukes,” the paper’s editors write. Jeongmin Kim of NKNews unpacks a bit more of the apparent anger in that op-ed, writing on Twitter Thursday, here

One last thing: President Yoon surprised his audience at the White House Wednesday evening with an impromptu rendition of what he said was his favorite song, “American Pie,” by Don McLean. The Associated Press preserved the moment in video, posted to YouTube, here

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From Defense One

US ‘Very Confident’ Ukraine Has What It Needs For Counteroffensive, US Europe Commander Says // Patrick Tucker: Gen. Chris Cavoli added that China is paying a cost for its support of Russia’s aggression.

Robot Rescue? Air Force Seeks New Way to Recover Downed Troops // Audrey Decker: The CSAR helicopters it’s currently buying can’t handle the mission in a conflict with China, officials say.

Space Force Sets Up For New Launch Bidders—But Startups Aren’t Quite Ready // Audrey Decker: Established giants are likely to win the first contracts awarded under a novel “two-lane” approach.

Boeing Losses From Building KC-46 Tanker Now Top $7 Billion // Marcus Weisgerber: With more than 70 percent of the planned fleet already ordered, the plane is still a financial burden.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1791, Samuel Morse, co-developer of Morse code, was born in Boston. 

Get a deeper understanding of America’s munitions production backlog problem thanks to a special report from the original D Brief-er Gordon Lubold, reporting Wednesday in a #LongRead for the Wall Street Journal.
Lubold traveled to a small factory outside Shreveport, La., to tell us about what he calls the Pentagon’s “single source” problem: “Only one foundry in the U.S. makes the titanium castings used in howitzers, and only one company makes the rocket motor used in the Javelin antitank weapon widely used in Ukraine.” And two years ago, an “errant spark” at the Louisiana plant blew up the only U.S. facility making black powder, “destroy[ing] all the building’s equipment.”
The black powder produced there was “used in more than 300 munitions, from cruise missiles, to bullets for M16 rifles, to the vital 155mm shells.” And the U.S. is desperately trying to send many of those weapons to Ukraine’s military to help it fend off an invasion from the world’s most nuclear-armed nation, Russia. What’s to be done, then? Read on for some solutions under consideration, nearly all of which involve a significant influx of cash, here.
Take a look at an entirely different kind of weapon that Romanians have reportedly crowdsourced to help Ukraine fight off Russia. Radio Free Europe refers to them as “Mad Max” armored vehicles, and to us they resemble some of the ramshackle tank trucks ISIS engineers welded together just under a decade ago across Iraq and Syria. Story and photos, here.
Battlefield perspective: Watch nearly 10 minutes of contemporary warfare video filmed via drones in eastern Ukraine. The clip, shared on Twitter earlier this week, shows the grueling work of clearing trenches with infantry units accompanied by drones that can drop grenades, and often quite successfully.
ICYMI: Germany’s air force said this week that Russian military aircraft are flying without transponders over the Baltic Sea.
By the way: CNA recently released a report entitled, “Russian Combat Air Strengths and Limitations: Lessons from Ukraine.” Dive in, here.
Additional reading: 

And lastly: China’s Coast Guard blocked a Philippine Coast Guard vessel from sailing near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Sunday. The Philippine ship was carrying journalists as they planned visits to a dozen islands in the region, according to Agence France-Presse, which was aboard one of two Philippine Coast Guard vessels when the incident occurred near the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal this past weekend. The shoal sits about 120 miles west of Manila’s island province of Palawan.
According to the Associated Press, which also tagged along for Manila’s two-ship regional tour, “In areas occupied or controlled by China, the Philippine patrol vessels received radio warnings in Chinese and halting English, ordering them to immediately leave what the Chinese coast guard and navy radio callers claimed were Beijing’s ‘undisputable territories’ and issuing unspecified threats for defiance.”
“Since you have disregarded our warning, we will take further necessary measures on you in accordance with the laws and any consequences entailed will be borne by you,” warned the Chinese vessel, which was much larger than the Philippines ships. At that point, the Chinese ship “rapidly approached” and came “as close as 36 to 46 meters (120 to 150 feet) from its bow” before the Philippine captain “abruptly reversed his vessel’s direction then shut off its engine to bring the boat to a full stop,” AP reports.
“This is at least the fifth dangerous act of harassment around the Second Thomas [Shoal] in the last year,” Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted on Twitter.
From Manila’s perspective, “We are David,” said a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, referencing the biblical tale from the Old Testament. “We believe that through the publication of all these aggressive actions of China, we would find friends who would criticize Goliath.”
Watch video of the close encounter near the Second Thomas Shoal, via AP’s YouTube page, here.
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