Today's D Brief: SecDef has cancer; ‘Complex’ Red Sea attack; Army’s space plans; 2023’s record heat; And a bit more.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is battling prostate cancer, Walter Reed doctors said Tuesday. It was spotted in late December, leading to a prostatectomy on Dec. 22. “His prognosis is excellent,” said Dr. John Maddox, the hospital’s trauma medical director, and Dr. Gregory Chesnut, who leads the Center for Prostate Disease Research of the Murtha Cancer Center. But on Jan. 1, a urinary tract infection put him back in the hospital, where he was treated for several days; he never lost consciousness, they said.
White House didn’t know. Politico: “Less than an hour after the announcement, the White House disclosed that President Joe Biden didn’t learn of Austin’s diagnosis until Tuesday, weeks after the secretary learned he had cancer and days after the two spoke on the phone.”
Key House Republican launches formal inquiry into Austin’s hospitalization. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers has sent letters to Austin, his chief of staff Kelly Magsamen and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks seeking explanations, relevant documents, and communications, The Hill reported.
“Outrageous situation.” In his letter to Austin, Rogers wrote, “Everything from on-going counterterrorism operations to nuclear command and control relies on a clear understanding of the secretary’s decision-making capacity...The department is a robust institution, and it is designed to function under attack by our enemies, but it is not designed for a Secretary who conceals being incapacitated.”
Someone’s got jokes: “I just walked into a meeting with a ton [of] warrant officers,” Army veteran Chuck Ritter wrote on social media Monday. “They all had their hands in the air. I asked what was going on. One said they had unanimously voted to make the SecDef an honorary warrant since he didn’t show up to work and didn’t tell anyone where he was for four days.”
Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1946, the U.S. Army bounced radar signals off the Moon and received them back at an antennae array in New Jersey. The test, known as Project Diana, was an early investigation into the potential of missile defense systems.
U.S. and British ships shot down nearly two dozen drones and missiles in a “complex attack” launched by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen Tuesday evening, U.S. military officials at the Tampa-based Central Command said on social media. “Dozens of merchant vessels” were transiting the Red Sea when the attack occurred at about 9 p.m. local, CENTCOM said.
The shoot downs required “a combined effort of F/A-18s” as well as the crews of USS Gravely, USS Laboon, USS Mason, and the United Kingdom’s HMS Diamond. Two cruise missiles, one anti-ship ballistic missile, and 18 different drones were deployed by the Houthis in the attack, which was the 26th such attack on commercial shipping since November 19, CENTCOM said.
British defense chief Grant Schapps called it “the largest attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date.”
- “Houthi anti-ship missile systems: getting better all the time,” via Fabian Hinz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a new report published Monday;
- And “Importers Face Surging Shipping Costs, Delays as Red Sea Diversions Pile Up,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
U.S. Army leaders this week updated their strategy toward space-based systems, emphasizing the need to attack adversaries’ systems and “to conceal and protect friendly ground forces across the entire battlespace,” according to a memo (PDF) released to the force on Monday.
According to this new vision, future formations down range should involve “mobile Army space formations” that “move alongside and keep pace with ground combat formations to protect forces and enable the Army to win decisively.” Army Chief Gen. Randy George said in his own statement, “Integrating joint and Army space capabilities into the operations process must become second nature to commanders at every echelon.”
“Simply put, we will be operating under constant surveillance and must invest in the knowledge and forces to counter threat space systems and enable our own space systems,” Secretary Christine Wormuth, Chief of Staff George, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer wrote in their memo. That includes the ability to “Interdict adversary space capabilities by delivering necessary fires and effects” by targeting an enemy’s “counter-satellite communications, counter-surveillance and reconnaissance, and navigation warfare operations,” according to the Army leaders.
You may recall the Army has gone all-in on the Pentagon’s recent push for multi-domain operations, which incorporates air, land, sea, cyber, and space-based assets in a kind of blitzkrieg fashion to overwhelm an enemy. Look no further than the service’s ongoing “Project Convergence” trials combining multiple elements and services and allied partners into a single, unified operation or exercise.
Worth noting: U.S. and Chinese military officials spoke at the Pentagon this week for two days of Defense Policy Coordination Talks. The Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Michael Chase represented the U.S. side, while Chinese Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao attended for Beijing.
Discussed: “respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law,” Chinese military “harassment against lawfully operating Philippine vessels in the South China Sea,” “Russia's unprovoked war against Ukraine,” and the regional threat posed by North Korea, according to the Pentagon’s readout.
New: Beijing’s military this week published an essay warning about Starlink, criticizing Elon Musk’s growing satellite constellation program because of its “negative implications for space security and governance.”
“First, Starlink has a clear military focus and strategic intentions,” the authors (possibly just one author) warn nearly two years into Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which has seen Ukrainian forces use Starlink as part of their wider defensive efforts.
“Second, Starlink occupies a significant amount of space frequency resources,” and has “initiated a new round of space arms race,” they add. And with Musk’s plans to eventually deploy at least 12,000 of these linked satellites (more than 5,000 are presently aloft), it’s not hard to see why the Chinese military is concerned. Nowadays, just about any overnight stay in the wilderness will reveal the parading pins of light reflecting off Musk’s satellites as they orbit the earth amid the countless stars much farther out in space.
But the authors seem to go off the rails a bit with their last warning, claiming Musk’s “Starshield satellites can undertake suicide missions against space vehicles and carry weapon payloads for space strike missions.” As far as we understand, this kamikaze claim and “weapon payload” assertion is not true. However, Defense One technology editor Patrick Tucker adds, “In theory, any maneuverable satellite could be weaponized into a sort of space projectile.” But that’s not what SpaceX and Elon Musk are doing with this project. As they beam down internet connections to those on the ground, their satellites “fly around and avoid hitting things based on a crappy collision-avoidance algorithm,” Tucker notes. You can read more about those orbital navigation efforts at Space.com.
By the way: The Chinese company Changguang Satellite Technology, or CGST, has at least 108 of its own remote sensing satellites orbiting the planet, with the goal of 300 such satellites by the end of next year. Spacenews has more on that, here.
ICYMI: A Chinese satellite launch Tuesday featured a rocket soaring well above southern Taiwan, which is holding a general election this weekend. The launch triggered a brief spell of panic for many on the island because the military mistakenly mistranslated the object as a “missile” in an alert sent to residents’ phones. According to the Wall Street Journal, “China regularly sends satellites into space on trajectories above Taiwan—though almost always at a sufficiently high altitude to avoid triggering air-raid alerts.”
“I think this [was] an overreaction by Taiwan,” Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Reuters. “Satellites fly over Taiwan every day,” and this particular one “entered orbit well before crossing the coast of mainland China,” he added.
- “The coming Chinese megaconstellation revolution,” also via Spacenews, reporting last February;
- “SpaceX’s Starlink to Amazon’s Project Kuiper: The future of satellite internet,” via Vox, reporting exactly one year ago.
One last thing: A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could cost an estimated $10 trillion, which would be more than “the war in Ukraine, Covid pandemic and Global Financial Crisis,” Bloomberg reported this week.
Caveat: “Few put a high probability on an imminent Chinese invasion,” five different Bloomberg reporters write in their report. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping reportedly vowed in November to take back the island eventually—though he apparently and understandably did not give a date.
Still, the possibility has dominated U.S. politics for several years, and underlies much of America’s military spending on the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, “Everyone from Wall Street investors to military planners and the swathe of businesses that rely on Taiwan’s semiconductors are already moving to hedge against the risk,” the Bloomberg authors note.
- “Bloomberg Economics has modeled two scenarios: a Chinese invasion drawing the US into a local conflict, and a blockade cutting Taiwan off from trade with the rest of the world.” The blockade would cost the U.S. more than 3% GDP, and would reduce global GDP by 5%; an actual war scenario would more than double both estimates.
- “[T]he biggest hit comes from the missing semiconductors,” which would affect everything from laptop and smartphone production to the assembly of automobiles. Read more from Bloomberg’s report, here.
And lastly today: 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history, with land and ocean temperatures “pushing the planet dangerously close to a long-feared warming threshold,” the Washington Post reported off a Tuesday announcement by Europe’s top climate agency. “Last year shattered the previous global temperature record by almost two-tenths of a degree — the largest jump scientists have ever observed. This year is predicted to be even hotter.” More, here.