Today's D Brief: Ukraine’s progress; Russia’s drone ambitions; Hypersonic breakthrough?; ‘Barbaric’ ICE detention; And a bit more.

Ukraine’s military claimed its first notable progress since late July after allegedly taking control of the village of Urozhaine in southeastern Ukraine, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Wednesday on Telegram. 

Stepping stone: Retaking Urozhaine “would bring Kyiv closer to threatening the village of Staromlynivka, several kilometers to the south, which military analysts say is a Russian stronghold in the area,” Reuters reported Wednesday. Ukrainian forces in the area are believed to be ultimately headed for the Sea of Azov, which is still 55 miles from Urozhaine. 

Other advances were confirmed in footage published on social media showing Ukrainian forces pushing northeast of Robotyne, in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian forces “have likely made wider gains in the surrounding areas given weeks of consistent Ukrainian activity in the forested areas northeast of the settlement,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Wednesday evening. 

“At this rate though they'll cut the land bridge to Crimea sometime in 2030,” joked Defense One’s Sam Skove, who has reported from Ukraine’s frontlines in the south. In all seriousness, however, Ukraine’s Kharkiv counter-offensive during the summer of 2022 may have sent the wrong message to Kyiv’s allies, Skove cautions. “It only went so well because Russia had only one line of defense, and terrible troops there,” said Skove. 

Russian forces have adapted in many ways since last summer, of course; perhaps most significantly by digging mazes of trenches and creating thousands of minefields on the edges of occupied territory. Brady Africk of the American Enterprise Institute continues monitoring those defensive operations, and you can see the latest, published Tuesday on his blog, here

New: Ukraine won’t be getting any F-16s until at least next year, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an air force spokesman’s remarks Wednesday evening on Ukrainian television. “We had high hopes for this aircraft,” Yuriy Ihnat said. But “It is already obvious that we will not be able to protect Ukraine with F-16 fighters this autumn and winter,” he added. 

After visiting frontline troops in Zaporizhzhia this week, President Volodymir Zelenskyy said in his evening address Wednesday that those troops “first ask about drones, electronic warfare, and military air defense.” Zelenskyy said he’s tasked his commanders with obtaining those items as quickly as possible. But overall, said Zelenskyy, “Air defense systems for Ukraine, weapons for our warriors, sanctions, financial and political pressure on Russia are the main things now that guarantee security and the return of peace not just to one country, but to the whole world.”

We now have what seems to be a deeper understanding of Russia’s drone ambitions thanks to a trove of documents obtained by the Washington Post. The docs purportedly originate from a worker inside Russia’s expanding drone production facilities in Russia’s Alabuga Special Economic Zone, located east of Moscow in the Republic of Tatarstan. “The individual decided to expose details of the effort in the hope that international attention might lead to additional sanctions, potentially disrupting production and bringing the war to an end more quickly,” the Post reports. 

Included in the documents: “factory-floor blueprints, technical schematics, personnel records, memorandums provided to Iranian counterparts,” according to the Post. But you’ll also find growing unease among the younger workers at Alabuga, and some classic elements of Soviet-era industrialization and its discontents, including poor craftsmanship and inefficiencies swept under the rug. Read the full report from the Post, here

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you can do that here. On this day in 1943, Allied forces concluded their invasion of Sicily, which began more than a month earlier with a fairly disastrous airborne operation that saw many U.S. and British troops blown off course and into the Mediterranean Sea. America's airborne operations nearly ended there, had it not been for the faith and support of Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, who persuaded his superiors (including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower) better training could improve future performance.

Pentagon study: reforms needed to reduce sexual assaults at service academies. After a survey released earlier this year revealed a spike in reports of such assaults at the academies in the 2021-22 academic year, SecDef Lloyd Austin ordered a review to figure out what to do about it. The results of that review are expected to be released today, and AP has a preview of its “immediate and longer-term recommendations to improve assault and harassment prevention and eliminate toxic climates that fuel the problems.”

Among those recommendations: Training sessions about “stress relief, misconduct, social media, and other life issues” generally take place outside the school day, so the report “recommends that those topics be addressed in classes and graded, to promote their importance.”

AP: “Officials familiar with the study said that while the academies offer a lot of strong programs, toxic and unhealthy command climates make them less effective. When cadets and midshipmen learn one thing about leadership or prevention in the classroom, but they don’t see it reinforced in other settings, it sends mixed messages about what to expect, about how to be treated and how to treat others, said one official.” Read on, here.

ICYMI: D1 recently talked with victims of sexual assault in the ranks about the new executive order removing such cases from the chain of command. Read that, here.

A breakthrough in plasma research could enable better hypersonic weapons, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reported Wednesday. 

The gist: A July research paper in the American Chemical Society’s journal ACS Nano describes one potential solution that uses focused plasma, the photons and highly charged particles that make up the so-called fourth state of matter. If the method bears out in further research, it could usher in hypersonic weapons with much more advanced electronic guidance and could even enable on-the-ground weapons to evade heat sensors.

“If you want to cool something, the traditional way to cool it is you have a big massive heatsink, or you have some refrigeration cycle with liquid and coolant,” said researcher Patrick Hopkins. The problem: “That's really heavy,” he said. But thanks to this new understanding, “through a plasma, there could be novel, lightweight ways that you could have a directed cooling solution that could now help to cool electronics on airplanes, on satellites, on hypersonic vehicles, that would not compromise size, weight and power.” Read on, here

California startup JetZero won a Pentagon competition to build and test a wing-shaped airplane, Defense One’s Audrey Decker reported Wednesday. The Air Force is considering a blended-wing design for future aircraft because it’s much more fuel efficient than traditional airframes. The JetZero offering is estimated to carry twice the fuel of a Boeing KC-46 tanker.

“This is about getting back to basics with what airpower delivers for the joint fight: speed, range, endurance and flexibility, but it's also about efficiency, because in the Indo-Pacific, we expend a little more gas, we need a little more efficiency, the distances a little bit longer,” said Ravi Chaudhary, assistant Air Force secretary for energy, installations, and environment. 

JetZero will receive $235 million over the next four years to build and test the prototype, with plans for a first flight in 2027. Read more, here

And lastly: “Barbaric” and “negligent” conditions documented in ICE detention. When experts hired by the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties looked at more than two dozen facilities in 16 states from 2017 to 2019, they found “negligent” medical care, “unsafe and filthy” conditions, racist abuse of detainees, inappropriate pepper-spraying of mentally ill detainees and other problems that, in some cases, contributed to detainee deaths, NPR reports. 

DHS fought for two years to withhold the reports from public view. A judge ruled that violated federal law, and compelled the agency to release the reports, which run to some 1,600 pages. Read on, here.