Today’s D Brief: Democracy under threat, Biden warns; Port for Gaza aid; Sweden joins NATO; V-22s cleared to fly; And a bit more.

by Braxton Taylor

Sweden formally joined the Russia-focused NATO alliance Thursday, nearly two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its neighbor Ukraine, which spurred Sweden and neighboring Finland to apply for membership in the collective defense alliance.

President Joe Biden welcomed the United States’ latest ally a few hours later at his State of the Union address, of which more below. 

Before the Ukraine invasion, Russian leader Vladimir Putin alleged NATO’s growing membership was partly what triggered his initial Ukraine invasion ten years ago when masked Russian troops without any insignia attacked Ukrainian cities and illegally annexed its Crimean peninsula and portions of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But when Finland joined NATO last year, Russia’s border with NATO countries doubled. 

Now with Sweden’s accession to the alliance, “The Baltic Sea becomes a NATO lake,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, according to the UK’s Financial Times, reporting Thursday. The very tabloid-y British paper The Daily Mail illustrated this Baltic dynamic more clearly in a series of maps published late last month, here. 

“After over 200 years of non-alignment, Sweden now enjoys the protection granted under Article 5, the ultimate guarantee of Allies’ freedom and security,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said following the news Thursday from Brussels. “Sweden brings with it capable armed forces and a first-class defense industry,” he said, and added, “Sweden’s accession makes NATO stronger, Sweden safer, and the whole alliance more secure.” 

“Our shared democratic values—and our willingness to stand up for them—is what makes NATO the greatest military alliance in the history of the world,” said U.S. President Joe Biden in a statement Thursday. “It is what draws nations to our cause. It is what underpins our unity. And together with our newest Ally Sweden—NATO will continue to stand for freedom and democracy for generations to come,” he said. 

“Sweden’s decision is another reminder that Putin’s war is not the result of NATO enlargement, it is the cause of NATO enlargement,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his own statement Thursday. “Together, we will continue the Alliance’s urgent, vital work to defend every inch of NATO territory, strengthen Euro-Atlantic security, and build a safer world,” Austin said. 

“Thank you all allies for welcoming us as the 32nd member” of NATO, said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, writing Thursday on social media. “We will strive for unity, solidarity and burden-sharing, and will fully adhere to the Washington Treaty values: freedom, democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” he said. 

A few hours later, Kristersson took a seat in the U.S. Capitol, a guest of honor for Thursday evening’s State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. “With Sweden as a NATO Ally, our already close bilateral bonds will grow even stronger,” Kristersson said afterward in a note of thanks. 

Biden opened his fourth SOTU with a dire warning about the future of Europe and a plea to Congress to pass a supplemental aid package for Ukraine.

“If anybody thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you he will not,” Biden said. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., who has blocked efforts to approve such aid, nodded along behind Biden.

Panning out: Biden spoke amid a slip in the polls for his popularity and the popularity of foreign policies he champions, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports. “Public support for Ukraine is morphing, with nearly two-thirds now supporting a negotiated end to the conflict that Russia launched, even at the expense of Ukraine losing territory.” Continue reading, here.

Welcome to this Friday 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 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered his “evil empire” speech, in which he pitched placing nuclear weapons in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets putting their own nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

The U.S. military has been tasked with leading an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in Gaza, President Biden announced Thursday. The idea is “to enable the delivery of significant quantities of assistance by sea” in a multi-national effort closely coordinated with the Israeli government, the White House said in a joint statement Friday with the leaders of Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, the Republic of Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. 

“The delivery of humanitarian assistance directly to Gaza by sea will be complex, and our nations will continue to assess and adjust our efforts to ensure we deliver aid as effectively as possible,” the leaders said in their statement. They referred to this new corridor as a necessary facet “of a sustained effort to increase the flow of humanitarian aid and commercial commodities into Gaza through all possible routes.”

“We’re not waiting on the Israelis,” because the U.S. wants to accelerate the provision of food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters, White House officials said Thursday. “We expect the first delivery to transit this crossing over the coming week, starting with a pilot and then ramping up,” they said in a call with reporters. 

The first shipments are expected to come from Cyprus and will be “enabled by the U.S. military and a coalition of partners and allies,” officials said. “The forces that will be required to complete this mission are either already in the region or will begin to move there soon,” they added. 

The U.S. military also delivered another 38,000 meals to Palestinians besieged in Gaza on Thursday. That episode marked the third time in a week that U.S. and Jordanian C-130s have teamed up to deliver humanitarian aid to Northern Gaza; the others occurred on Saturday and Tuesday. The Defense Department released imagery of the latest drop, which you can see here. 

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin rang his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant Thursday. (The two spoke at least 16 times in October; eight times in November; four times in December; twice in January; and three times last month.) In their Thursday chat, they discussed “the critical need to surge aid through all possible entry points and ensure the safe distribution of aid once delivered to Gaza,” according to the Pentagon’s readout. 

Elsewhere in the region, U.S. forces shot down three Houthi aerial drones headed for the Gulf of Aden on Thursday. They also destroyed four mobile anti-ship cruise missiles and another aerial drone before launch in the afternoon hours Thursday, officials from the Tampa-based Central Command said. 

Around the services: V-22 cleared for flight, with a new maintenance plan—and one outstanding mystery. Maintenance changes have been made to address the failure and all three services will have their own return-to-flight plans, according to a statement from Naval Air Systems Command. Officials say they know what part broke in the fatal late-November crash that led to a two-month grounding, but they don’t yet know why. D1’s Audrey Decker reports.

Budget cuts are eating into Air Force modernization but not readiness, leaders said ahead of the Monday rollout of the Pentagon’s 2025 budget proposal. Decker has a bit more, here.

Army experiment shrinks targeting time shrinks from minutes to seconds. Efforts to streamline procedures and speed up data flows have produced a “two orders of magnitude” increase in the speed at which data is passed to weapons crews since the first Project Convergence, said Alex Miller, a senior science and technical advisor to Army Chief of Staff Randy George. D1’s Sam Skove reports from Camp Pendleton, California, the Marine Corps base that hosted the latest iteration of the Army’s marquee tech-tryout, here.

Other newish Army efforts include: 

  • A new cross-functional team focused on developing ways of identifying and targeting enemy formations at long range,
  • Work on the High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System system, which will load spy gear into highflying jets more often used for corporate travel.

And lastly this week, the Pentagon threw cold water on anyone hoping for evidence of alien technology. That finding topped the department’s newly unclassified report (PDF) to congress rolling up the historical record from the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office. 

Background: “AARO reviewed all official U.S government investigatory efforts since 1945, researched classified and unclassified archives, conducted dozens of interviews, and partnered with Intelligence Community and DOD officials responsible for controlled and special access program oversight, respectively” for this latest report on unidentified aerial phenomena. 

To be clear, the goal of the analysis “is to use a rigorous analytic and scientific approach to investigate past U.S. government-sponsored UAP investigation efforts and the claims made by interviewees that the U.S. government and various contractors have recovered and are hiding off-world technology and biological material,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Friday. “AARO is committed to reaching conclusions based on verifiable evidence,” and their analysts “will follow the evidence where it leads, wherever it leads,” he said. 

Topline finding: “AARO found no evidence that any USG investigation, academic-sponsored research, or official review panel has confirmed that any sighting of a UAP represented extraterrestrial technology. All investigative efforts, at all levels of classification, concluded that most sightings were ordinary objects and phenomena and the result of misidentification.”

But don’t put away your tinfoil hats just yet, because the Pentagon says it still plans to release a second volume featuring “interviews with current and former U.S. government personnel who contacted AARO” with their experiences. 

For what it’s worth, by the last known count, less than 20% of Americans believe in alien abductions, which is “a bit less than that claim to have seen a UFO,” the Huffington Post reported in 2017. 

The truth is out there, as they say. Have a safe weekend, everyone. And you can catch us again on Monday. 

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