Today's D Brief: ATACMS to Ukraine?; USAF eyes ‘major changes’; Russia’s Black Sea attacks; Deadliest migration route; And a bit more.

The White House is considering sending Ukraine long-range missiles called ATACMS, Reuters reported Monday, which would mark a reversal of the Biden administration’s refusal to send the ground-launched munitions. The missiles have a range of about 190 miles, and could threaten Russian supply lines as Ukrainian ground forces continue the slow, complex work of advancing through dense minefields.

The U.S. might also send 45-mile range missiles, known as Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions, that are “packed with cluster bombs,” four U.S. officials told Reuters. Regardless of which is chosen, “either option would be available for rapid shipment to Kyiv,” Mike Stone of Reuters writes. However, the officials cautioned, the deal “is not final and could still fall through,” at least partly because some observers fear a nuclear-armed Russian military could be angered by the transfer and choose to escalate its brutal war further.

Get to better know the small Polish airport that’s become a key node for Western aid to Ukraine. Defense One’s Sam Skove recently traveled to Poland, home of the Rzeszów-Jasionka airport, which had hosted low-budget holiday flights—but it also has a runway long enough to accommodate large cargo planes like the Boeing-built C-17. 

By the way: The U.S. just cleared Poland to buy the second phase of a Patriot missile defense system at a cost of about $4 billion. “[T]he sale includes 93 Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System Engagement Operation Centers and 175 IBCS Integrated Fire Control Network relays,” the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced Monday. (Phase one was purchased in 2017; portions of phase two were authorized this past June.)

Democracy watch: Next month, Poles will go to the polls, where they may hand yet more power to the populist Law and Justice Party, which has since 2015 eroded the independent judiciary and media. Writes The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk: “If the Law and Justice party succeeds in winning a third mandate, the worrying trends of the past eight years are likely to accelerate. By the time of the next election, in 2027, the country’s political system might look like a carbon copy of Hungary’s. If, however, the opposition does well enough to form the next government, one of the most powerful countries in Europe could be back on track toward sustaining a genuine democracy.”

Developing: Swedish officials are reportedly exploring sending some of their JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets to Ukraine, Swedish radio news reported Tuesday. The formal probe is expected to be announced later this week, but won’t require an answer until November. 

The British say Russia tried to attack a civilian cargo ship in the Black Sea on 24 August, but the attack failed because Ukraine shot down the targeting cruise missiles. Intelligence shows that an intended target was a Liberian-flagged cargo ship berthed in the port” at Odesa, the British Foreign Ministry said Monday. “Russia has stopped even attempting to justify that these attacks are against legitimate military targets and is cynically targeting civilian infrastructure,” including 26 port infrastructure facilities in Odesa, Chornomorsk and Reni, the ministry said in its statement.  

Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian ports “have so far destroyed 280,000 tonnes of grain—enough to feed over 1 million people for a year, and more than the total Russia promised to donate to African countries,” the British said, calling it “a brutal attempt to choke the Ukrainian economy.”  

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Tuesday 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 1940, a teenager and his dog discovered a series of hunting-themed cave paintings in Nazi-occupied France that turned out to be nearly 17,000 years old. 

USAF aims to “re-optimize” for great power competition. Secretary Frank Kendall said his service will conduct a “broad review” to identify things that must change to better be ready for a potential fight in the Pacific. 

Due next year, the review will examine all aspects of how the service organizes, trains, and equips to support combatant commanders and the joint force, Kendall said Monday at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The service must “be open to major changes that reflect the requirements of the National Defense Strategy to deter and, if necessary, prevail against China or Russia,” Kendall said. D1’s Audrey Decker has more, here.

Recovery efforts for Morocco’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake will likely continue for several weeks. Four days after the country’s strongest quake in more than 100 years shook the region, nearly 3,000 people have reportedly perished and countless others are still buried under rubble. 

“Most of the dead have already been buried,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Moroccan authorities say they’re hoping to avoid a disorganized response effort, and have so far only accepted help from four countries—Spain, Qatar, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates.

The U.S. military has about 100 troops in the country “for exercise planning,” and they’re all accounted for, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday. A Pentagon official told Defense One’s Caitlin Kenney that the Morocco-based elements include “teams from the Utah National Guard, a security force assistance brigade, and a joint combined exchange training team.”

“We'll continue to monitor this situation, but we have not been asked to provide any support as of right now,” Ryder said Monday at the Pentagon. AP has more on ways you can donate to help aid organizations already on the scene, here.  

Lastly today: Where is the world’s deadliest land migration route? Could it be any of the paths out of Afghanistan? The corridor around the Mediterranean Sea? No, the United Nations says in a new report. It’s the U.S.-Mexico border, and by a long shot, according to new data on dead and missing migrants worldwide. 

Nearly 700 people died or disappeared making the northward journey in 2022, which is the deadliest year since the UN began tracking these stats almost a decade ago. Since 2014, no region of the world has come close, with the number of dead and missing who tried to make the journey to the U.S. exceeding 4,500 people. The path from the Caribbean to the U.S. was the second-most dangerous, with 499 people known to have perished or gone missing since attempting their journey. And the true numbers are likely much higher, the UN said, due to the difficulty in accurately tracking all migration activity, as well as a lack of data from Texas border county coroner's offices and Mexico’s search and rescue agency. 

“The main direct causes of death identified in this area are drowning—mainly in the Rio Grande / Río Bravo and surrounding canals—and deaths caused by harsh environmental conditions and lack of shelter, food and water,” the UN said Tuesday. Similarly, “Nearly half (307) of the deaths on the United States-Mexico border were linked to the hazardous crossing of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts,” which is “far more than other desert regions where irregular migration is prevalent,” according to the report. 

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