Pentagon chief heads to an Asia on edge- POLITICO

With help from Quint Forgey, Daniel Lippman, Nahal Toosi, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Andy Blatchford

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Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN lifted off this morning for a 10-day visit to Asia, with a final stop in Brussels on the tail end of the trip, as Pacific allies are increasingly on edge over China’s provocative moves and a record number of North Korean missile launches this year.

This is Austin’s fourth visit to Asia as defense secretary, and reflects the Biden administration’s continued focus on the Pacific even as the war grinds on in Ukraine, a senior defense official told reporters ahead of the visit.

“We get these questions all the time whether it’s here, whether it’s the Middle East, and we continue to say we’re still here, we’re showing up,” the official said, pointing to President JOE BIDEN’s inaugural trip to the region last month. “Look at the pace of our operational and diplomatic activities. We’re still incredibly engaged and focused on Asia.”

In addition to Austin’s visit, high-level officials from the State Department will also be traveling to the Pacific later this month and next, the official said.

The dangerous new dynamics in the South China Sea may reflect China’s alarm over recent developments in the region, including the “AUKUS” technology-sharing agreement with the U.K. and Australia, as well Biden’s meeting with the other leaders of the Quad grouping in Japan last month, said RANDY SCHRIVER, a top Asia policy official in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. Beijing is clearly on a path right now of “trying to intimidate and coerce our partners,” Schriver said.

In what Australia on Monday called a “dangerous” intercept, a Chinese fighter jet cut across the front of a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft in late May. The Chinese jet released flares and chaff, some of which the RAAF aircraft ingested into its engine, Australian officials said.

Reports also emerged over the weekend that China is secretly building a port in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its navy, as satellite photos showed that Beijing’s most advanced aircraft carrier to date is nearing completion.

Meanwhile, North Korea continues to demand international attention. On June 5, Pyongyang launched eight ballistic missiles from various parts of the country, marking the largest number of such missiles ever launched in a single day by the hermit kingdom and bringing the total number of ballistic missiles launched in 2022 to 31 — a new record.

Senior DPRK officials have also recently used rhetoric that “could suggest the use of tactical nuclear weapons,” and that the nation is preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test, U.S. Special Representative to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea SUNG KIM told reporters on Tuesday.

Against this backdrop, Austin plans to meet with the Chinese Minister of National Defense, Gen. WEI FENGHE, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore during the trip, a senior defense official confirmed ahead of the visit — the first time the two are meeting face-to-face.

But don’t expect much substance to come from the discussion. Wei is Austin’s counterpart “in terms of protocol only,” Schriver noted. In terms of authority and seniority, Austin’s true equal is actually Air Force Gen. XU QILIANG, the senior vice chair of the Central Military Commission, China’s most senior uniformed officer. Beijing’s refusal to allow the Pentagon chief to meet with Xu has long been a source of frustration, Schriver said.

China’s recent provocative actions are not in themselves unusual, said CRISTINA GARAFOLA of the RAND Corporation, but what is notable is the Pentagon chief’s continued focus on Beijing.

“There have been other cases in the past where U.S. allies and partners have faced the PRC or the PLA’s unsafe or unprofessional activities in the South China Sea, so it’s not necessarily a new development,” Garafola told NSD. “But I think it just highlights more that [Austin] is going to the region at an important time where we clearly see activities by China that go against the principles the U.S. is trying to uphold with a free and open Pacific.”

Overall, don’t expect U.S. partners in the region to publicly criticize or antagonize China at the conference, said ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Asia expert at Stanford University. The real work will be done behind the scenes, where countries will look for more military and diplomatic cooperation with the U.S. “I think if the U.S. tries to push for a more public stance that we’re on the same page, that will probably fall short,” she said.

TERROR THREAT WARNING: On the heels of a series of horrific mass shootings in recent weeks and ahead of the midterm elections this fall, the United States continues to be in a “heightened threat environment” that is only going to get more “dynamic,” the Department of Homeland Security warned in its latest National Terrorism Advisory bulletin issued Tuesday morning.

The bulletin warned in particular of “copycat attacks” in the wake of last month’s massacre at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, fueled by online forums harboring violent extremist content. Some conspiracy theorists have seized on the shooting to “spread disinformation and incite grievances, including claims it was a government-staged event meant to advance gun control measures,” according to the bulletin.

“Individuals in online forums that routinely promulgate domestic violent extremist and conspiracy theory-related content have praised the May 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and encouraged copycat attacks,” according to the advisory, which also notes that the suspect in the grocery store attack in Buffalo, New York, in May “claimed he was motivated by racist, anti-Black, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”

The expected Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, as well as the coming midterm elections, could also fuel additional violence by domestic extremists, the bulletin notes.

“In the coming months, we expect the threat environment to become more dynamic as several high-profile events could be exploited to justify acts of violence against a range of possible targets,” the advisory reads.

RUSSIAN FULBRIGHTERS: More than two dozen Russian Fulbright students are calling on the State Department to waive its two-year home residency requirement and extend their legal status in the U.S. to avoid possible persecution in their home country, according to a letter obtained by our own JOSEPH GEDEON.

The letter, signed by 31 Russian Fulbrighters who have asked to keep their identities hidden for fear of retribution, notes that students are concerned they may be targeted by Russia’s “foreign agent” law should they return. “The law has already been used to target journalists, activists and ordinary citizens with accusations of espionage,” the letter reads. “As beneficiaries of funding from the U.S. Department of State, on our return to Russia, we also would be a potential target to the accusations of treason for voicing our opinion on the war in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the war rages on as the battle for Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region proves to be a key strategic battleground. Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY visited a neighboring town a day ago and noted that Ukrainian forces were outnumbered, despite having killed Russian Gen. ROMAN KUTUZOV. As Ukraine awaits new weapons from the West, Moscow continues to hit Ukraine’s eastern flank and bolster its own sanction list to include more than 60 Americans.

Back in the U.S. the State Department told POLITICO that the health and safety of its exchange participants are its top priority and that there are other options that could help Fulbrighters remain in the country.

“While it is a legal requirement of the J-1 visa that certain exchange participants return and be physically present in their home country for two years following the conclusion of their program, this only applies to those who have concluded a program and wish to return to the United States for permanent residency or as a temporary worker,” a State official said. “Participants may apply to enter the United States in other visa categories without having to complete the two-year home return. Participants may also apply for a waiver of the two-year home return requirement.”

Attorney GREG SISKIND, who is representing the Russian Fulbrighters, finds State’s response to be counter-intuitive, telling POLITICO that it “bypasses our whole sanctions regime and benefits Russia by sending them people trained at our top institutions.”

There are 102 Russians and 39 Ukrainians in the United States on active Fulbright grants as of mid-May, according to the State Department.

BOLSONARO’S ULTIMATUM: The drama surrounding the lead-up to Biden’s Summit of the Americas just won’t stop. The Associated Press reports that Biden became so worried that his Brazilian counterpart JAIR BOLSONARO would skip the event that he dispatched a close adviser to personally deliver the president’s invitation. But Bolsonaro’s answer came with a catch, the outlet reports.

“Bolsonaro said he would attend the Summit of the Americas only if Biden granted him a private meeting and also refrained from confronting him over some of the most contentious issues between the two men, the officials told The Associated Press.”

“He didn’t want any criticism over deforestation in the Amazon or warnings about his questioning of the Brazilian electoral system’s reliability as he prepares to campaign for another term, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.”

The two leaders are set to meet one-on-one this Thursday, the outlet reports, but it remains to be seen whether Biden curtails his criticism. Bolsonaro was a close ally of Biden’s predecessor, former U.S. President DONALD TRUMP.

Bolsonaro’s presence at the summit lends the event legitimacy after the White House excluded three major Western hemisphere nations — Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — prompting Mexican leader ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR to also sit it out.

NORAD’S REJUVENATION: Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU and Defense Minister ANITA ANAND will tour the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s headquarters today in Colorado Springs, a visit that comes with Canada talking up the need to better protect the continent.

— On the itinerary: Trudeau and Anand will take in a briefing from NORAD officials and observe a demonstration at Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station. They will also meet with Canadian Armed Forces personnel at NORAD.

— Conversation starters: Anand was pressed late Monday for specifics about the government’s spending plans for continental defense and NORAD’s modernization when she appeared before a parliamentary committee. She would only say April’s budget included C$6 billion in additional defense investments, an amount that includes a new, unspecified amount of cash for continental defense. The extra money is in addition to previous commitments totaling C$252 million, over five years, in last year’s budget toward NORAD modernization as well as continental and Arctic defense.

“We will be continuing to come forward with a plan to modernize NORAD,” Anand told the House national defense committee.

— Work underway: She was later asked if Trudeau intended to make any announcements during the NORAD visit. Anand sidestepped the question, replying that she’s in frequent contact with her U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

She added that she and Austin have been building on work that began last year “in terms of enhancing command and control, enhancing surveillance, and ensuring the maintenance and upgrading of the systems that protect our continent.”

— What’s next: Anand heads to Singapore on Thursday to participate in the Shangri-La Dialogue with Chief of the Defense Staff General WAYNE EYRE and Associate Deputy Minister of National Defense STEFANIE BECK.

“I will be discussing Canada’s Indo-Pacific presence, and the importance of our military exercise with allies and partners such as Australia, the United States and Japan, including the sail through of the Taiwanese strait that we undertook in 2021 with the United States,” she said.

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EMERGENCY LANDING IN THE PACIFIC: A Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet crash-landed at a Honolulu airport after its landing gear didn’t deploy, according to Hawaii News Now. But our own LARA SELIGMAN reports that it was actually an American pilot flying the plane. Details are still emerging, but it looks like the U.S. Air Force pilot was delivering the plane — either a new aircraft or one that had just undergone maintenance — from the U.S. to Taiwan, she reports.

While the pilot survived and no one else was injured, this is the second incident involving the Tawainese air force in a week and the third this year. On May 31, the pilot of an air force trainer jet died after crashing in southern Taiwan, hours after 30 Chinese warplanes were spotted in the vicinity by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. In January, an F-16V crashed in the sea off Taiwan’s west coast, killing its pilot.

Tensions are rising between China and Taiwan, which the Chinese Ministry of National Defense has called “part of China” in a recent press event. Taiwan has adamantly declared itself independent of China, and the country bought 66 F-16V new fighter jets from the U.S. during the Trump administration, set to be delivered by 2026.

INSIDE JOB: A blast that injured four U.S. service members at a base in northern Syria in April is now being investigated as an insider attack, CNN’s BARBARA STARR reported.

What was first thought to be indirect fire consistent with what has been carried out by militia groups in the region turned into “the deliberate placement of explosive charges by an unidentified individual(s) at an ammunition holding area and shower facility,” according to a military statement in April. The possible suspect is a U.S. service member who acted in the middle of the night to place “military grade” explosives, according to Starr’s reporting. The service members were evaluated for minor injuries.

There are currently hundreds of U.S. troops in Syria as part of the military’s joint task force “Operation Inherent Resolve,” an ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.

CYBER THREATS ‘THE NEW NORMAL’: There was a somewhat resigned tone in an op-ed by two top U.S. cyber officials, saying that threats in cyberspace are the “new normal” and it will take a gargantuan effort by everyone to curb them.

“[T]he prospect of cyberattacks here at home — whether by Russia or other malign state and non-state actors — will not dissipate anytime soon,” JEN EASTERLY, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director, and CHRIS INGLIS, the national cyber director wrote in Cyberscoop. “[W]hile we will never stop defending cyberspace, maintaining a maximum alert posture is not sustainable over a long period of time, and could lead to vigilance fatigue —the opposite of what we are aiming for in building a collective cyberdefense.”

It’s a dark assessment of the current state of cybersecurity. While they make the typical allusions to public-private collaboration and the need for government to be nimbler in its responses to threats, the officials also note that there are simply too many vulnerabilities. “Cybersecurity requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort. We all must double down on our investments in the inherent resilience of our systems,” they wrote.

A piece that likely was meant to reassure, then, did the opposite for NatSec Daily.

NEW ANTI-TANK KIT DEMO: After two years of work, a European Union-funded effort to build an advanced anti-tank missile will reach an important milestone this summer: a live-fire demonstration.

The project, LynkEUs, which is centered around MBDA’s MMP weapon, also includes “10 additional partners from France, Belgium and Cyprus, along with subcontractors from France, Estonia and Sweden,” Defense News’ VIVIENNE MACHI reported. “The system in development under LynkEUs draws on the fifth-generation MMP missile system for the French Army, which had a technical requirement for an anti-tank ground missile and beyond-line-of-sight capability.”

The weapon has taken on new importance as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine displayed a clear need to destroy invading tanks. “LynkEUs would allow troops to fire from one location at a target, using information delivered by a third party such as forward observers or unmanned vehicles,” per Machi. As important as the missile itself is the “open architecture that connects sensors and shooters.”

You can download a fact sheet about the program.

HOUSE PANEL MOVES TO GROUND HICKS: In an aggressive move, the House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee aims to restrict travel for Deputy Defense Secretary KATHLEEN HICKS all in an effort to force a decision on which Pentagon entity is responsible for developing defenses against cruise missiles, our own BRYAN BENDER and CONNOR O’BRIEN scooped.

The provision is expected to be included in the panel’s markup of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which it will take up on Wednesday.

“The issue was raised by several officials in the Department as a reason some efforts to improve cruise missile defense of the homeland have stalled,” Rep. JIM COOPER (D-Tenn.) told POLITICO. “We are hoping this language will push for a timely decision so critical work can continue on the cruise missile defense architecture.”

The Pentagon has been working to finalize a new strategy for combating cruise missiles, which can be launched from the ground, aircraft or ships at hypersonic speeds that are difficult to track and can overwhelm current defenses. A major question remains as to which DOD agency or service should be tasked with overseeing the effort. At an April budget hearing, Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN told Sen. DEB FISCHER (R-Neb.) that the Pentagon would “move out smartly on” making the designation, but provided no timeline.

HOUSE DEMS CALL ON BIDEN TO PRESS MBS: Six Democrats who chair House committees or subcommittees are calling on President Joe Biden to urge reforms in Saudi Arabia in light of a potential visit by the American leader to the Middle Eastern country.

In a letter dated today, the Democrats spell out specific demands and requests they believe Biden should make. They include: Calling for an end to the kingdom’s arbitrary detention of human rights defenders; demanding accountability for the murder of journalist JAMAL KHASHOGGI; and securing further Saudi commitments to stabilize global energy markets.

The Democrats express disappointment in the Saudi leadership’s direction in recent years. The country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, has loosened many social rules but also overseen a political crackdown. The U.S. intelligence community suspects he orchestrated the killing of Khashoggi.

“Until Saudi Arabia shows signs of charting a different course, and in light of deliberations regarding a potential visit to the Kingdom during which you may have an opportunity to meet with King Salman and other regional heads of state, we encourage you to redouble your efforts to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” the letter states.

Still, due in part to Riyadh’s importance to the global energy market, the Biden administration has tried to walk a fine line with the monarchy there, and the U.S. president may visit in the coming weeks.

The House members who signed include ADAM SCHIFF of California, who earlier had indicated that Biden shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia at all.

NDAA UPDATE: The House Armed Services Committee has begun unveiling sections of its annual defense policy bill ahead of subcommittee markups on Wednesday and Thursday.

Three subcommittees have released their portions of the National Defense Authorization Act so far: Cyber | Strategic Forces | Seapower.

While many of the most contentious issues will be punted to the June 22 full Armed Services markup, here are some highlights so far:

Patriot games: The Strategic Forces subcommittee’s section of the NDAA requires the Army to reevaluate whether it needs more Patriot batteries and missiles in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It would mandate the service assess its long-term acquisition goals of 16 batteries and 3,376 missiles.

Demand for the Raytheon-produced air and missile defense system is high, particularly as NATO countries look to guard against threats from Russia. The U.S. deployed a Patriot missile system to Slovakia in April after the NATO ally announced it would send its Soviet-era S-300 air defense system to Ukraine.

Cruise missile confrontation: Strategic Forces also plans to wall off 10 percent of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks’ travel budget until the Pentagon designates an agency or military service to oversee efforts to defend the U.S. against cruise missile threats.

The move, first reported by POLITICO on Monday, is aimed at forcing a plan out of the Pentagon required in the 2017 NDAA, though Hicks’ office has rejected assertions she’s held up a decision and said the plan has not yet hit her desk.

Cyber, IT and R&D: HASC’s Cyber panel is seeking an independent assessment of the cost, in working hours, of poor performing software and IT systems. The subcommittee also wants the Pentagon to expand its efforts to bolster the biomanufacturing industrial base and assess whether the Pentagon’s chief information officer has the workforce necessary to support Defense Department cyber capabilities.

Ship retirements blocked: The Seapower panel’s section of the NDAA blocks some of the Navy’s two dozen planned ship retirements. The bill blocks the Navy from scrapping the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg as well as four amphibious ships. The bill doesn’t tackle plans to decommission relatively new littoral combat ships, but some lawmakers will likely look to overturn it.

The bill authorizes eight new ships requested by the Navy: two Virginia-class subs, two Arleigh Burke destroyers, a frigate, a fleet oiler, a San Antonio class amphibious ship and a towing, salvage and rescue ship.

JOHNSON DOWN AND NEARLY OUT: Ouch. British prime minister BORIS JOHNSON survived a no-confidence vote 211-148 in Parliament but his political stock has been badly wounded. That much became clear when 41% of his own party voted for his ouster. In comparison, his predecessor ELIZABETH MAY stepped down from the job after 37% of her Tory colleagues voted against her in 2018. The Labour Party won’t be taking that lying down, as Tottenham MP DAVID LAMMY tweeted that Johnson is “a dead man walking” and “he’s got to go.”

But the Tories are in a rut as there may not be a suitable candidate to replace Johnson should he vacate office. Whoever comes next, a YouGov poll from today shows that 60% of Britons favor prime minister Johnson’s resignation.

SARA PLANA, formerly of the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, was sworn in Tuesday as the senior intelligence assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official.

MITCHELL REISS will join the Brunswick Group as a partner and co-lead of the Geopolitical practice on July 1. He was previously director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning from 2003 to 2005 and President GEORGE W. BUSH’s special envoy for the Northern Ireland peace process from 2003 to 2007.

ALEX WAGNER, Biden’s pick for assistant Air Force secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, was confirmed today by the Senate in a 76-21 blowout vote.

EMILY PERKINS is now executive director for the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. She most recently was VP of development at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

PAUL ARCANGELI, former House Armed Services staff director, has joined lobbying and strategic communications firm Invariant. He left HASC in April after 12 years as the committee’s top Democratic staffer.

IGOR KOSSOV, Kyiv Independent: “Portrait of the invader: Understanding the Russian soldier

BARRY POSEN, Defense Priorities: Hypotheses on the implications of the Ukraine-Russia war

YASMEEN SERHAN, The Atlantic: The U.S. Must Stand Up for One of Its Own

— The Defense Department, 8:30 a.m.:2022 DoD Digital and AI Symposium” — with JOHN SHERMAN, JOHN LAMONTAGNE, KATHLEEN HICKS and more”

— The Defense Strategies Institute, 8:45 a.m.:Enhancing Warfighting Capabilities to Deliver Digital and Tactical Battlefield Overmatch” — with DAVID FURNESS, YOUNG BANG, ERIC AUSTIN and more”

— Clooney Foundation for Justice, 9:00 a.m.:Conflict Antiquities: Prosecuting Participants in the Illegal Antiquities Trade” — with ANYA NEISTAT

— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10:00 a.m.:The Path Forward on U.S.-Syria Policy: Strategy and Accountability” — with MILENA STERIO, DANA STROUL,BARBARA LEAF and more”

— The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 10:00 a.m.:Nuclear deterrence” — with THOMAS BUSSIERE

— House Foreign Affairs Committee, 10:00 a.m.:Resourcing U.S. Priorities in the Indo-Pacific FY2023 Budget” — with CRAIG HART, DONALD LU and CAMILLE DAWSON

— The Atlantic Council, 12:30 p.m.:Strengthening Black Sea Security and Defense in a New Era” — with ANDREI MURARU, JAMES L. JONES JR., CATHERINE SENDAK and more”

— The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1:00 p.m.:Trouble on the Homefront” — with AARON DAVID MILLER and MARY B. MCCORD

— The Heritage Foundation, 3:30 p.m.:Maintaining American Nuclear Deterrence” — with PATTY-JANE GELLER and REP. DOUG LAMBORN

— The National Endowment for Democracy, 4:00 p.m.:2022 Democracy Awards” — with NATALIYA GUMENYUK, OLEKSANDRA MATVIYCHUK, ANNA BONDARENKO and more”

— The Institute of World Politics, 6:00 p.m.:Enterprise Threat Modeling” — with CHARLES CHEN

— The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, 7:30 p.m.:Defense Department’s strategic outlook for digital modernization and cybersecurity” — with ROBERT ‘BOB’ ASHLEY JR., and JOHN SHERMAN

— The Ploughshares Fund, 8:00 p.m.:War in Ukraine underscores anew the dangerous reemergence of nuclear threats” — with JAMAL ABDI, LIV BOEREE, ELIZABETH WARNER and more”

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who often prefaces his edits with notes “hoping this language will push for a timely decision so critical work can continue.”