Today's D Brief: China, US generals talk; Fat Leonard, extradited; EU joins Red Sea force; Another rocket attack in Iraq; And a bit more.

The top generals of China and the United States spoke by video this morning, ending a 16-month break in communications at the militaries’ highest levels. Air Force Gen. CQ Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Liu Zhenli of the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department, discussed global and regional security issues, according to Pentagon officials who offered few details. (WSJ)

China appears to be upgrading its first nuclear-test base for new weapons tests. Satellite photos show new roads, buildings, and facilities at Lop Nur in China’s mountainous northwestern region. “All the evidence points to China making preparations that would let it resume nuclear tests,” Tong Zhao, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the New York Times, which has more, here.

China’s Xi told Biden in November that Beijing will “reunify” Taiwan. That previously unrevealed detail from the leaders’ summit in San Francisco was unearthed by NBC News, which cites “three current and former U.S. officials” in its report. According to these sources, Xi said China has set no timetable, that he prefers the takeover happen peacefully, and that a U.S. Air Force general was wrong in his prediction of an invasion by 2025. 

Taiwanese officials say the island is not yet ready to stave off such an invasion, Bloomberg reports (paywalled).

Meanwhile, China is driving the effort to write the first rules for deep-sea mining, including of metals key to the next century’s tech development, writes the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which urges the U.S. government to get in the game while it still has a chance to shape the coming regulatory regime. Read that, here.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1988, the largest aircraft in the world, the Antonov An-225 Mriya, took its first flight. Russia bombed the Mriya during the opening salvos of its botched Ukraine invasion in February 2022.

Venezuela extradited wanted criminal Leonard Francis to the U.S. on Wednesday as part of a surprise exchange negotiated with the White House. 

Francis was a Malaysian defense contractor who pleaded guilty in 2015 to what was eventually revealed to have been a $35 million bribery conspiracy involving several U.S. Navy officers spanning 2004 until his arrest until 2013. Weeks before his sentencing in 2022, he cut off his ankle tracking bracelet and fled the country for Venezuela, where he was later detained trying to fly to Russia. 

Francis earned the nickname “Fat Leonard” due to his 6-foot-2, 350-pound frame. For nearly a decade, he bribed Navy officials to steer contracts to him using millions of dollars in cash, prostitutes, Cuban cigars, Kobe beef, and more. 

The other side of the deal: President Joe Biden granted “clemency to Alex Saab, who is pending trial for money laundering…in what was essentially an exchange of 10 Americans and a fugitive from justice for one person returned to Venezuela,” U.S. officials told reporters in a call Wednesday. 

At least two of the Americans who won release from Venezuela include two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Arian Berry, who failed spectacularly in their bid to overthrow the Maduro government back in 2020. 

Six other Americans were released as well. Unlike Denman and Berry, the State Department classified their Venezuelan detention as “wrongful.” They include Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella, Savoi Wright, Jason Saad, and Edgar Jose Marval Moreno. NBC News has more, here.

Update: The last three missing U.S. Army special operations soldiers were recovered from the Mediterranean Sea last Friday, Army officials said Thursday. Five soldiers perished when their MH-60 Blackhawk crashed during training operations in the Mediterranean on November 10. 

“Recovery took place using the Deep Drone remote operated vehicle,” the Army said Thursday. “Deep Drone is a 4,100 pound ROV designed to meet the Navy’s mid-water salvage requirements to a maximum depth of 8,000 feet.”

The five who perished include: 

  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephen R. Dwyer, 38 of Clarksville, Tennessee
  • Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shane M. Barnes, 34, of Sacramento, California
  • Staff Sgt. Tanner W. Grone, 26, of Gorham, New Hampshire
  • Sgt. Andrew P. Southard, 27, of Apache Junction, Arizona
  • And Sgt. Cade M. Wolfe, 24, of Mankato, Minnesota. 

Following yet another rocket attack on an Iraqi base hosting U.S. forces on Wednesday, Iraqi troops investigated the launch site near al Assad Air Base and “seized a flatbed truck modified to launch up to 5 x 122mm rockets,” U.S. defense officials at Central Command said Wednesday evening. Fortunately no one was injured in the attack, and nothing was damaged at al Assad. 

After the recent attacks on commercial vessels by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, commercial insurance rates to transit the Red Sea continue to rise, and many analysts don’t expect that trend to stop until at least the start of 2024, as industry-watcher Lloyd’s List reported Wednesday. 

This week in data visuals: Here’s a useful compilation of Houthi naval attacks in the Red Sea, compiled by Damien Symon. See also this user-generated map of U.S. and allied naval assets in the region. 

New: The European Union formally joined the U.S.-led naval force for Red Sea shipping called Operation Prosperity Guardian, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced Wednesday. “We will intensify our information sharing and increase our presence with additional naval assets,” Borrell wrote on social media. The EU’s contribution will involve naval assets designated for the bloc’s Operation Atalanta, initially launched 15 years ago to curb Somali piracy. 

Greece just announced it will contribute a frigate to the Prosperity Guardian mission, Defence Minister Nikos Dendias said Thursday in Athens. Reuters has a tiny bit more, here

Big picture consideration: “While the threat of more severe disruption persists, the response of energy markets has been muted compared with dramatic moves in prices sparked by some other past outbreaks of violence in the Middle East,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. 

Traders also reportedly said “they think Houthi forces are unlikely to attack tankers carrying Qatari [liquified natural gas], which is an important source of fuel in Europe.” Relatedly, “Regional gas prices currently encourage exporters to send American LNG to Europe instead of Asia, reducing the importance of the Red Sea,” according to the Journal. Read more, here.