Today’s D Brief: Trump: I’d abandon allies; SecDef back in hospital; Destroyer squadron CO relieved; Russia’s using Starlink; And a bit more.

by Braxton Taylor

Former President Donald Trump said Saturday he’d “encourage” Russia to attack NATO members that failed to “pay their bills”—at once a mischaracterization of how the alliance works and a startling nod to Moscow.

Trump appeared to be alluding to NATO’s longtime goal that each member spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense, which eight out of 31 nations currently do. He had expressed similar sentiments, and apparent misunderstanding, as president.

Allies were quick to criticize Trump’s words, made during a campaign speech on Saturday in South Carolina. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Even some Republicans condemned the encouragement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose brazen full-scale invasion of Ukraine touched off a land war in Europe.

One view from across the pond: “This is typical Trump fare. Say something provocative, grab some headlines, outrage your critics and thrill your fans,” writes Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent. However, he argues, “If a future aggressor, be it Vladimir Putin in Europe or Xi Jinping in the South China Sea, begins to doubt Washington’s commitment to defend its allies, then it risks a massive miscalculation.” Indeed, he warns, “You don’t have to look far for an example. Two years ago, President Putin’s intelligence people told him the West would sit on its hands if he invaded Ukraine. They were wrong—and a catastrophic war has ensued.”   

Trump’s nod to Moscow recalls the 2020 report “by a Republican-controlled Senate panel that spent three years investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.” It “laid out an extensive web of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Kremlin officials and other Russians,” the New York Times reported. Those Russians included “at least one intelligence officer and others tied to the country’s spy services.” More, here. 

New: Former Marine officer Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, is stepping away from politics at the end of his term, which concludes next January. He announced his coming departure this weekend on social media, just four days after facing intense criticism and even shouting from hardline Republicans (like Marge Greene and Mark Green of Georgia and Tennessee, respectively) for Gallagher’s decision not to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last Tuesday. 

“Electoral politics was never supposed to be a career and, trust me, Congress is no place to grow old,” he wrote in a statement on Saturday. After all, “the Framers intended citizens to serve in Congress for a season and then return to their private lives,” said Gallagher. “And so, with a heavy heart, I have decided not to run for re-election,” he wrote. 

Gallagher chairs the House’s Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, which has been investigating often obscure links between U.S. industries and the Chinese military for more than a year. His role on that committee is one of his most proud accomplishments, he said. 

And despite recent tumult and inaction in the GOP-led House, “Four terms serving you has strengthened my conviction that America is the greatest country in the history of the world,” said Gallagher. “And though my title may change, my mission will always remain the same: deter America’s enemies and defend the Constitution.”

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Bradley Peniston with Ben Watson and Jennifer Hlad. 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, recently discharged Black Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard was removed from a bus and severely beaten by South Carolina police officers to the point that he lost vision in both eyes. The brutal incident helped inspire President Harry Truman to issue his historic order desegregating the entire U.S. military in 1948.

Interim Pentagon chief Kathleen Hicks is temporarily in charge of the U.S. military after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized Sunday with a bladder problem. His most recent status was announced just before midnight Sunday evening, and stated that after a series of tests, Austin had been placed in a critical care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “for supportive care and close monitoring.” 

For the record: Austin transferred his authority to Deputy Secretary Hicks just before 5 p.m. ET Sunday. “The Deputy Secretary of Defense has assumed the functions and duties,” Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement, and added, “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House, and Congress have been notified.”

“At this time, it is not clear how long Secretary Austin will remain hospitalized,” Walter Reed Military Medical Center officials said in their Sunday evening statement. However, “The current bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated full recovery,” and “His cancer prognosis remains excellent,” they added.

Russia is using SpaceX’s Starlink satellite devices in Ukraine, sources say. Ukrainian troops first detected Russia’s frontline use of the satellite-connected devices several months ago, according to one Ukrainian source. A second Ukrainian source confirmed the use of Starlink, and added that its usage appeared to be increasing. Both sources were granted anonymity to discuss topics that they were not authorized to discuss. D1’s Sam Skove has more, here.

The U.S. Army just fast-tracked 600 Raytheon-made drone interceptors for about $75 million. The deal involves 600 Coyote 2C Interceptors, which are designed for detecting and destroying smaller unmanned aircraft before they reach their target. 

Officials announced the deal Friday, and said funding will come from the Pentagon’s rapid acquisition authority, “with all actions completed in less than 30 days from the authorization approval and receipt of funding.”

“We will never have enough missiles” against threats like small drones, Army Lt. Gen. Sean Gainey of the service’s Space and Missile Defense Command told Defense One’s Sam Skove in late January. At the time, Gainey specifically praised the Coyote, describing it as “One of our most successful interceptors.” 

The Navy relieved the commander of Destroyer Squadron 2, which is part of the USS Gerald Ford carrier strike group, for a conduct issue, U.S. Naval Institute news reported Sunday. Capt. William “Mac” Harkin will be replaced by Capt. James Von St. Paul, the Navy said. 

“Navy leaders are held to high standards of personal and professional conduct, both on and off duty. They are expected to uphold the highest standards of responsibility, reliability, and leadership, and the Navy holds them accountable,” the service said in a statement, which notes Harkin was sacked because of a “loss of confidence in Capt. Harkin’s ability to perform his duties.” 

The strike group returned home to Norfolk, Va., in mid-January after a deployment that was extended 76 days because of the Israel-Hamas war; it was the Ford’s first combat deployment. Two of the guided missile destroyers under Harkin’s command operated in the Red Sea during that deployment. 

And lastly: The Marine Corps on Friday released the names of the five service members killed in a CH-53E helicopter accident last week in California. The incident is under investigation. The deceased are: 

  • Lance Cpl. Donovan Davis, 21, of Olathe, Kansas, a CH-53E helicopter crew chief;
  • Sgt. Alec Langen, 23, of Chandler, Arizona, a CH-53E helicopter crew chief;
  • Capt. Benjamin Moulton, 27, of Emmett, Idaho, a CH-53E helicopter pilot;
  • Capt. Jack Casey, 26, of Dover, New Hampshire, a CH-53E helicopter pilot;
  • And Capt. Miguel Nava, 28, of Traverse City, Michigan, a CH-53E helicopter pilot.

“All were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and were based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California,” the service said in a statement Friday. RIP, gentlemen. 

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