Today’s D Brief: Ukraine cannibalizing howitzers; Army to cut 32K billets; Protestors yell at USAF chief; Wildfires close nuke-assembly plant; And a bit more.

by Braxton Taylor

Ukraine’s military says it shot down another Russian jet, which would be its 10th in 10 days. “Another russian Su-34 fighter-bomber was destroyed by Ukrainian warriors in the eastern direction,” the defense ministry claimed on social media Wednesday. 

But Ukraine is running low on critical artillery systems. Troops and mechanics are “cannibalizing” damaged howitzers for spare parts, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday (gift link). 

New: Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov is slated to address an audience at the Washington-based Hudson Institute about noon ET, as part of a series of discussions assessing Russia’s Ukraine invasion after two years of fighting. Kyiv’s Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova is also attending. Several European and U.S. military officials are expected as well, including Czech military chief Lt. Gen. Karel Řehka, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Leonard Kosinski, the UK’s Mark Newton, and more. Details and livestream, here. 

In reruns: At least five other think tanks in the DC area have conducted recent events marking the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale Ukraine invasion. Those include: 

Developing: The Russian military’s threshold for using nuclear weapons in a conflict is allegedly lower than you might have presumed, according to a new report from the Financial Times, using leaked files from training scenarios for an invasion by China. 

“The cache consists of 29 secret Russian military files drawn up between 2008 and 2014, including scenarios for war-gaming and presentations for naval officers, which discuss operating principles for the use of nuclear weapons,” FT reports. “Criteria for a potential nuclear response range from an enemy incursion on Russian territory to more specific triggers, such as the destruction of 20 percent of Russia’s strategic ballistic missile submarines.” Read on, here. 

Additional reading: 

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 1993, federal agents raided a compound where heavily-armed cult members of the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas, had isolated themselves in preparation for what they believed was an apocalyptic second coming of Jesus Christ. The raid was met with fierce resistance, triggering a two-hour exchange of gunfire that left four ATF agents dead and 16 others wounded at the start of what would develop into a 51-day standoff. It ultimately ended on April 19 with the deaths of 86 people, including 82 cult members—28 of whom were children. The episode helped to galvanize far-right militants across the U.S., including Timothy McVeigh, who would later kill 168 people when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Air Force chief Gen. David Allvin elaborated somewhat on the service’s new reorganization plans in a Wednesday conversation with Melanie Sisson of the Brookings Institution in Washington. The plans involve restructuring air wings as part of a wider “Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition” announced by service leaders in September. D1’s Decker reported the latest developments with these plans about two weeks ago from the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Colorado. Stay tuned to Defense One later today for more from Allvin’s conversation at Brookings.

Allvin was repeatedly interrupted Wednesday by protesters angry at U.S. support for Israel in its war with Hamas militants in Gaza. “You killed Aaron Bushnell!” one protester shouted, referring to the 25-year-old senior airman who died this weekend after he self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassy on Sunday in support of Palestinians in Gaza. 

Allvin said the service is investigating Bushnell’s death. “We lost one of ours,” he said. “Any suicide whether by political protest or by resiliency issues or wherever it is, is a tragedy.”

Bushnell’s past and what may have contributed to his decision were examined Sunday by the Washington Post, here. 

Army aims to cut 32,000 billets over five years. That’s jobs, not soldiers: recruiting shortfalls have left holes in various units, so some units will be consolidated to reduce “hollow structure,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters on Tuesday.

The move will clear space for some 7,500 new billets in emerging specialties  such as directed energy, the Mobile Short Range Air Defense program, and multi-domain task force teams.

The cuts will include 3,000 special operations billets—“largely jobs that have been difficult to fill or aren’t as relevant like print media and psychological operations,” D1’s Lauren C. Williams reports.

Budget impasse freezes two Space Force efforts, leaders say. Two acquisition programs are on hold because Congress has not passed a 2024 budget five months into the fiscal year, Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear said Tueday at the National Security Space Association’s Defense and Intelligence Space Conference. 

One would buy 20 communications satellites for the nascent orbital mesh network called Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, or PWSA; the other would order eight demonstration satellites for the FOO Fighter missile-defense fire control effort. Decker reports, here.

Silicon Valley venture capitalists want to help build hypersonic weapons, according to the Wall Street Journal reporting Wednesday using venture-capital data from PitchBook. Participants include Eclipse Ventures and start-ups like Hermeus, Castelion, Ursa Major, and Venus Aerospace. 

For a window into one of these entities, “Castelion has raised more than $14 million since it was launched 15 months ago and will likely need a couple hundred million more in capital over the next two years to get to its first full missile system,” the Journal reports. “The company is planning its first hypersonic missile test flight in the next month or so.” More here. 

Meanwhile in Texas, wildfires briefly shut down the Pantex nuclear weapons facility outside of Amarillo, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. “Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties,” AP reports. “The main facility that disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal paused operations Tuesday night because of the encroaching flames but said it was open for normal work on Wednesday.”

Said one researcher: “Nothing like America’s only nuclear weapons assembly/disassembly site potentially burning down in February to illustrate the intersection of climate change and national security!” Read more from AP,  here.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin will appear before House lawmakers Thursday morning to review the procedures around his secretive hospitalizations in late December and January for what later turned out to be undiagnosed prostate cancer. Austin and his staff afterward admitted to having not been fully transparent toward top officials in the process, including President Biden, several lawmakers, and even Austin’s deputy, Kathleen Hicks, who was initially unclear why Austin’s authorities were being temporarily transferred to her. 

Pentagon officials briefed some lawmakers ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, shortly after the release of the Defense Department’s own internal review of the hospitalization and notification process released Monday. That review did not discipline any individuals over the incidents. But it did contain eight recommendations for Austin and his staff moving forward; two have already been implemented, and the remaining six will be soon, defense officials said Monday. The Pentagon also released an unclassified summary of the events, which irritated some Republicans (including Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer) who said the entire review ought to have been unclassified. 

“Regrettably, this report does not appear to hold the Secretary or anyone else accountable,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi said in a statement Tuesday, and added that many lawmakers “left the briefing frustrated by questions that went unanswered.” 

“The Pentagon finding itself blameless is irresponsibly dismissive,” said Fischer. “At a minimum, DOD must consider how to inform Congress about future gaps in command—as required by current law,” she added. 

“The only reason that some paragraphs are marked as classified (and only at the secret level) and that the briefing was closed is to avoid embarrassment and accountability for the lapse of judgment by Secretary Austin and his chief of staff,” said Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. 

“The Department’s 30-day review and its recommendations serve as a starting point for ensuring this lapse never occurs again,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said in a statement after Tuesday’s briefing with defense officials. “The purpose of this morning’s briefing was to ensure that the apparent communication gaps that occurred while the Secretary of Defense was hospitalized in January are never repeated, and to ensure that principles of civilian control of the military are observed,” said Reed, who noted his interest in a forthcoming report from the inspector general.

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