Today D Brief: Fire at sea; Russia’s Iranian missiles; Defense cuts coming; Trump’s vision for the military; And a bit more.

After attacking and nearly sinking a commercial vessel Monday, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen are suspected of setting a different cargo ship on fire with a missile attack in the Gulf of Aden, British maritime authorities announced Thursday. The vessel and crew were later reported safe despite being struck by two missiles, and the ship reportedly continued on its course. 

The ship hit Thursday was the Palau-flagged cargo ship named Islander, according to the Associated Press. It was bound for Egypt from Thailand, and reportedly broadcast “SYRIAN CREW ON BOARD” so as to avoid Houthi attacks.

The French navy shot down two more drones in the Red Sea overnight, officials announced on social media Thursday, with supporting imagery. 

The U.S. military in the region carried out four more airstrikes on suspected Houthi missile equipment Wednesday, Central Command officials said Thursday. Targets included “seven mobile Houthi Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles and one mobile Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile launcher that were prepared to launch towards the Red Sea,” according to CENTCOM. U.S. troops also shot down an aerial drone headed in their direction. 

One reason for optimism about the global shipping industry, despite Houthi attacks in the Red Sea: “a huge number of container ships, ordered two to three years ago, are entering service,” the New York Times reported Thursday, citing industry forecasts. 

Why now? “The companies ordered the ships when the extraordinary surge in world trade that occurred during the pandemic created enormous demand for their services,” the Times reports. “Those extra vessels are expected to help shipping companies maintain regular service as their ships travel longer distances.”

And U.S. container imports are surging, especially on the West Coast, industry-watcher Freightwaves reported Thursday. “The increase in January’s inbound volume, building on an 8.9% rise in December, reflects robust demand for tangible goods and underscores the resilience of the economy in the face of adversity,” they write. 

Read more: Get a better picture of remaining shipping disruptions (Suez and Panama canals, e.g., as well as the Black Sea) via a new report from the United Nations, published last week 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 1958, Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted for three years until Syria seceded after a coup d'état in the autumn of 1961.

Iran provided Russia around 400 short-range ballistic missiles last month, multiple sources told Reuters Wednesday. The missiles can be used on mobile launchers, and have a range as far as 435 miles. 

Some were sent “by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane,” an Iranian official told the wire service. “There will be more shipments,” another Iranian official said. Full story, here

Behind the deal: “Iran’s arms sales to Russia are part of Iran’s efforts to generate revenue to support its deteriorating economy,” analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote Wednesday evening. “Iran’s provision of these missile systems could improve Russia’s ability to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses,” they added. 

New: Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelenskyy spoke with Fox from the front lines on Wednesday. Brett Baier posted a roughly five-minute preview of that conversation, which was periodically interrupted by incoming artillery fire, and you can watch it on social media, here

Developing: The U.S. lacks a long-term sustainment plan for key Ukraine weapons, the Pentagon’s watchdog warned in a recent report (PDF). That includes Patriot air defense batteries, and what to do with the 186 Bradleys infantry fighting vehicles, 189 Strykers infantry carrying vehicles, and 31 Abrams tanks the U.S. has transferred to Ukraine, Defense One’s Sam Skove reported Wednesday. 

Forecast: The U.S. has given Ukraine the spare parts it will need for field-level maintenance until the end of fiscal year 2024, that report said. But weapons systems are “not likely to remain mission capable without sustainment,” the authors warned. 

Other nations have set up facilities to repair battle damage, Skove noted. “Lithuania repairs German-designed Leopard tanks that have suffered direct hits, while facilities in Poland repairs both Leopard and Soviet-designed tanks. Still, repair times can be lengthy. Tanks sent to Lithuania in October were not ready to run until mid-December.” Read more, here

Related reading: The Secret Oil-Trading Ring That Funds Russia’s War,” the Wall Street Journal reported Monday (gift link). 

Budget season preview: Knives out edition. Debt-ceiling cuts forced on the White House last spring removed $10 billion from the Defense Department's budget plans for FY2025. Now defense officials are scrambling behind the scenes to explain certain reductions they’ve drafted in accordance with that spring compromise, U.S. Naval Institute news and Politico reported this week. Reuters teased related cuts concerning the F-35 program late last week.

Driving these reductions: The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which “caps national defense spending…at $886 billion this year,” and “For fiscal 2025, the second year of the deal, the cap is $895 billion, just a 1 percent increase,” Politico writes.

Among the cuts planned: 

  • The Air Force is planning a $1.6 billion reduction in F-35 purchases, which represents an 18% cut in the planned number for the year ahead, according to Reuters. 
  • The Navy may cut its Virginia-class submarine plans in half—from the usual two subs per year to just one, according to USNI. 
  • The Army is planning to cancel its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program, which aimed to replace the aging OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter (we flagged that one in our newsletter two weeks ago). It also wants to delay new engine production for AH-64 Apaches and Black Hawks, and retire its AAI RQ-7 Shadow and AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven drones. 

Expert reax: “None of this should surprise us based on the fact that the Pentagon got stuck with a debt deal they didn’t want,” Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker slammed the local impacts of the debt deal, which was largely the work of House Republicans looking to flex their political power after winning a slim majority in the 2022 midterm elections. Mississippi is home to Ingalls Shipbuilding, which makes U.S. submarines.

“Attack submarines are the crown jewels of the U.S. military and critical to deterring China. Slashing production weakens American power,” Wicker said in a statement Wednesday. “I urge the administration to reverse course on this harmful decision,” he added. 

November lookahead: How might Donald Trump use the U.S. military in a second term? Two newsrooms take a look at the GOP frontrunner’s statements and track record:

  • “Trump and allies planning militarized mass deportations, detention camps: (WaPo)
  • “Trump's vision for the military: hunting cartels, patrolling US cities, quelling dissent” (D1)

Leaked documents illuminate China’s hacking efforts. Last week, someone posted files to a public server that show “hacking tools and data caches sold by a Chinese security firm called I-Soon, one of the hundreds of enterprising companies that support China’s aggressive state-sponsored hacking efforts, the NYT reports. “The materials, which were posted to a public website last week, revealed an eight-year effort to target databases and tap communications in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, India and elsewhere in Asia. The files also showed a campaign to closely monitor the activities of ethnic minorities in China and online gambling companies.” More, here, and from AP and WaPo.

A German company is developing sub drones that pass data with sound. At last week’s WEST 2024 conference, EvoLogics showed off an underwater modem, and the systems that the company is building around them: an uncrewed survey boat and soon, an underwater drone. Read the conversation D1’s Lauren C. Williams had with a company exec, here.

Yakuza boss sought nuclear-bomb material, US alleges. BBC: “Takeshi Ebisawa, 60, tried to sell uranium and plutonium that he believed would be transferred to Iran to build a nuclear bomb, it is alleged.” Ebisawa, who U.S. officials say is a senior figure in Japan’s organized crime, was arrested after his "confederates showed samples of nuclear materials in Thailand" to an undercover agent from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, a U.S. Department of Justice release said. More, here.

And lastly: For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. could land an object on the moon Thursday. The lander, built by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, would also be the first privately owned object to make a soft landing on the lunar surface. Company officials said they expect the landing to take place about 5:30 p.m. ET today. (NYT, Reuters)