Today's D Brief: SecDef’s hospitalization; Extremism in the ranks; China’s purge; New rocket’s first flight; And a bit more.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, 70, was hospitalized in the ICU last week after complications following an unspecified elective medical procedure, and apparently no one on his staff informed the White House until day four of his stay at Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown was informed on day two, according to the Washington Post. But congressional oversight leaders were not notified until day five, shortly before the military informed the public on Friday. 

Pentagon reporters were among the first to share their outrage on social media. Military Reporters and Editors cited the Defense Department’s own principles of information; others pointed to a 2008 episode when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ staff informed the public the same day he broke his arm after a fall on ice. And last fall, the public learned of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith’s hospitalization from exhaustion a heart attack within roughly 24 hours.

“The public has a right to know when U.S. Cabinet members are hospitalized, under anesthesia or when duties are delegated as the result of any medical procedure,” the leaders of the Pentagon Press Association admonished the Defense Department in a letter Friday. “As the nation’s top defense leader, Secretary Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation,” they wrote. 

More press reax: Jennifer Griffin of Fox called the delay “behavior you expect from the Chinese government.” Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal said, “This is a frightening level of info being held. It must stop.” Meghann Myers of Military Times chided the Pentagon for “breaking norms across the federal government.” Haley Britzky of CNN said, “The American public deserves transparency. Period.” And Barbara Starr, late of CNN, wrote that she does “not see a way forward for believing the Pentagon tells the truth on anything.” 

Bipartisan leaders of the House Armed Services Committee shared their concern over the delay, and stressed, “Several questions remain unanswered,” including “how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress.” 

“Transparency is vitally important,” Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, and Adam Smith, D-Washington, said in a statement Sunday. “Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible,” they insisted. 

Rewind: Beginning Friday, the Pentagon released three statements on Austin’s status, one for each day of the weekend. The first, from Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, said Austin “is recovering well and is expecting to resume his full duties [Friday].” 

The second was from Austin himself, in which he apologized and said he “understand[s] the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better.” However, he added, “This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.” 

The third statement, on Sunday, said Austin was still hospitalized, but “is recovering well and in good spirits,” and “has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DoD's day-to-day operations worldwide,” according to Ryder. 

For what it’s worth: Austin’s initial elective procedure took place on December 22, and he was sent home the following day. But he began experiencing “severe pain” on New Year's Day, and took an ambulance to Walter Reed for emergency care, whereupon he was admitted to the ICU, said Ryder. Austin’s deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was on vacation in Puerto Rico when he was hospitalized, and was “taken to a secure location to help fill in for her boss,” according to ABC News

President Biden was reportedly “exasperated” over the developments once he finally found out, ABC reported Sunday. Still, a U.S. official told the outlet Biden “has full confidence in Secretary Austin” and is “looking forward to him being back at the Pentagon.” But a perhaps different U.S. official (identity unclear) told ABC “someone could lose their job” over the episode. According to the Washington Post, Ryder said Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, had been ill when the hospitalization occurred, which contributed to the delay in notifying the White House.

“There must be consequences for this shocking breakdown,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in his own statement Saturday. “The Secretary of Defense is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes,” he emphasized. 

Cotton’s SASC colleague, Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi, went further, and said he will be looking into several considerations—including “Why was the notification process under 5 U.S.C. 3349 [Reporting of vacancies] not followed and who made the determination not to follow it? What role did the Secretary of Defense’s staff play? [And] When exactly was the President notified?” Wicker went on to claim, “This episode further erodes trust in the Biden Administration, which has repeatedly failed to inform the public in a timely fashion about critical events such as the Chinese spy balloon and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Welcome to this Monday 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 1790, George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address in New York City. This year’s address is scheduled for March 7.

Xi Jinping fired several military officials over the past several months after learning Chinese “missiles [were] filled with water instead of fuel” and “vast fields of missile silos in western China [were built] with lids that don’t function in a way that would allow the missiles to launch effectively,” Bloomberg reported Saturday, citing U.S. intelligence officials. 

Recent Chinese military departures include the top officer in October, as well as “two generals who oversaw satellite launches and manned space missions; an admiral who helped entrench Beijing’s presence in the disputed South China Sea; and a missile commander who had honed China’s ability to respond to a possible nuclear war,” the New York Times reported last week. 

China just created a new space launch pad for commercial launches from Hainan island. “It is the first of two pads which will host liquid propellant launch vehicles,” SpaceNews reported last week. And China just sent four more satellites to space from a different launch pad on Friday. 

Meanwhile, a U.S. rocket is on the way to the Moon. The Vulcan Centaur lifted off at 2:18 a.m. on Monday, bearing the first American lander toward the lunar surface since 1972. It was the first flight of the new heavy-lift vehicle from United Launch Alliance. 

Breathing a sigh of relief, no doubt, were ULA owners Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Vulcan Centaur represents their effort to replace their Atlas V and Delta IV rockets with a new vehicle that can compete with SpaceX’s rockets.

But it’s not clear that it will, says analyst Todd Harrison. “I don't see any scenario in which Vulcan becomes cost-competitive with Falcon 9 or Starship, and a big reason is that it is not designed for reusability. What will keep Vulcan alive is U.S. military policy that says they want to have at least two launch providers, and commercial customers that want to avoid becoming dependent on Elon Musk—like Amazon. Once Blue Origin's New Glenn enters service and gets qualified to launch military satellites, all bets are off,” Harrison said. D1’s Audrey Decker has more, here.

The U.S. military has an extremism tracking problem—but quite possibly not in the way that you think, argued Tom Nichols, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval War College, in The Atlantic on Thursday. 

Context: In December, the Pentagon released its long-awaited report on extremism in the military, which was completed in 2022. The study was ordered up after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which featured a disproportionately large number of veterans and those with some kind of military background—around 18% of those convicted compared to just 7% representation among the wider population. 

In that 2022 report, the author said they “found no evidence that the number of violent extremists in the military is disproportionate to the number of violent extremists∗ in the United States as a whole. But in an acknowledgment of earlier reports like this from NPR, and another from the University of Chicago, they added that “there is some indication that the rate of participation by former service members is slightly higher and may be growing.” 

Nichols argues that the asterisk is particularly notable “because civilians can openly join right-wing extremist organizations and express racist and extremist views, while military people know that there are things they can’t do or say in public.” 

The authors acknowledge as much. They also suggest that future probes to root out extremism may backfire because “the risk to the military from widespread polarization and division in the ranks may be a greater risk than the radicalization of a few service members.”

New: This week, a branch of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee will probe “The Risks of Progressive Ideologies in the U.S. Military,” lawmakers announced Thursday. According to National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc., the hearing is scheduled because “left-wing objectives which serve no military purpose...are affecting military readiness,” he said in a statement Thursday previewing next week’s hearing. In particular, Grothman promised to scrutinize “the military’s prioritization of progressive programs such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs.” 

Background: You may recall that about three years ago, Republicans—following the counsel of conservative strategist Chris Rufo—began to call critical race theory” or CRT, a top threat to society and the military under a Democratic president. More recently, the GOP has shifted its attention to DEI initiatives at institutions across the country, as Rufo himself has noted on social media in the wake of the recent scandal that engulfed Harvard University President Claudine Gay. 

Grothman’s GOP colleague from Wisconsin, Rep. Mike Gallagher, lampooned the Pentagon for trying to root out extremism in his own lengthy statement Thursday. “Every data source tells the same story,” said Gallagher. And that is, “there is ‘no evidence that the number of violent extremists in the military is disproportionate to the number of violent extremists in the United States as a whole’ or that right-wing extremism constitutes a disproportionate share of whatever ‘extremism’ problem may exist in the military. These conclusions are a serious indictment of Austin's entire effort,” Gallagher said. 

Gallagher’s advice: “In order to stop the politicization of DOD, solve the recruiting crisis, and save the All-Volunteer Force, DoD leaders must recommit to excellence in warfighting. As Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 Warfighting states very clearly—the military has two basic functions '…waging war and preparing for war. Any military activities that do not contribute to the conduct of a present war are justifiable only if they contribute to preparedness for a possible future one.'”

By the way: One of the guests invited to Grothman’s hearing was fired from the Space Force back in 2021 for claiming “Marxism” was sweeping through the military, among other comments CNN reviewed after his departure. 

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