The D Brief: Aid votes coming?; Ukraine war casualty counts; A plan to restart F-35 deliveries; Navy to miss recruiting goal; And a bit more.

“When you do the right thing, you let the chips fall where they may,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, told CNN Wednesday after he unveiled his four-part plan to pass supplemental aid bills worth nearly $96 billion to support Ukraine, Israel, the Pacific region, and more by the end of the week. 

Why bring up the “right thing” and “chips falling”? Johnson’s in a bit of a tight spot in terms of power politics thanks to the double-edged knife Republicans wield with their slim 218-213 majority in the lower chamber. And with an election coming up, they’d rather avoid another embarrassing series of votes for a GOP House speaker, as happened in the fall. So they’ve elected to save face by appearing to govern with a reliable speaker but also not quite governing by avoiding bills that might provoke Johnson’s removal, which Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene has been threatening for weeks. She was joined Wednesday by Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, which could signal the end for Johnson as speaker while also making his four-bill gambit this week seem both necessary and suicidal.

After all, most U.S. lawmakers (and Americans in general) support more aid to Ukraine, as suggested by February’s 70-29 Senate vote as well as the growing number of signatories for a discharge petition in the lower chamber. And half a dozen key House Republicans emphasized this in a joint statement Tuesday evening. But it only takes a few disgruntled right-wingers to consign Johnson to the fate that met Kevin McCarthy after he compromised with the White House to keep the government funded and functioning last year. 

“Johnson’s problem is a more extreme version of one that has dogged Republican speakers for years,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson explained on Thursday. “A strong but small group of right-wing Republicans elected on absolutist platforms in deep-red districts comes to Washington with an expansive agenda and adamant they won’t compromise with Democrats. But they lack the power or numbers to force their will apart from in the rare phases when Republicans have a monopoly on Washington power. The frustrated extremists then turn on GOP leaders and accuse them of becoming traitors—simply because they live in the land of political reality.”

Developing: Some of Greene’s GOP colleagues said Wednesday they’ve had enough. “Her theater and this constant effort to hold the Congress hostage has to come to an end,” Rep. Marc Molinaro from New York said Wednesday. “The concept of another motion to vacate [Johnson’s speakership, as threatened by Greene and Massie] is an utter waste of time, and frankly a distraction from really important business,” he said. “I’m going to have no part in it. And a good number of my colleagues—conservative and moderate—believe that enough is enough. It is time to move on and to move past this kind of nonsense,” Molinaro told CNN. (Note: Johnson and Greene both sought to overturn U.S. election results in 2021.)

Coverage continues below…

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 1988, the U.S. Navy and Iran engaged in the first ship-to-ship missile duel. It occurred during Operation Praying Mantis, the day-long retaliation for the Iranian mining of the guided missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts.

President Biden took his message of urgency about Ukraine and Israel aid directly to Republicans, writing Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal’s customarily conservative Opinion section: “If Congress passes military aid for Ukraine and Israel, we won’t write blank checks. We’d send military equipment from our own stockpiles, then use the money authorized by Congress to replenish those stockpiles—by buying from American suppliers.” 

“We’d be investing in America’s industrial base, buying American products made by American workers, supporting jobs in nearly 40 states, and strengthening our own national security,” Biden said. “We’d help our friends while helping ourselves.”

The aid bills are “a strong and sensible plan,” the president said, and emphasized, “It shouldn’t be held hostage any longer by a small group of extreme Republican House members.” Read on, here.

Particularly notable: The House’s Ukraine aid bill explicitly directs the transfer of ATACMS missiles, the long-range weapons once deemed too escalatory. 

Battlefield update: At least 50,000 Russian troops are confirmed to have died invading Ukraine, the BBC reported this week. How did they arrive at this figure? “New graves in cemeteries helped provide the names of many soldiers,” a trio of BBC reporters write. “Our teams also combed through open-source information from official reports, newspapers and social media,” they said Wednesday. 

More than 27,000 Russians died in the second year of Putin’s invasion, which is almost 25% more than Russia’s confirmed losses from the first year of combat in Ukraine. By comparison, Ukraine’s president said in February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting so far. However, “estimates, based on US intelligence, suggest greater losses,” the BBC notes. More, here. 

Norwegian Defense Minister Bjorn Gram is scheduled to visit the Pentagon Thursday for talks with his counterpart Lloyd Austin. Gram is expected shortly before noon. 

AFSec Kendall: America’s old A-10 Warthogs probably won’t help much vs. Russia. Despite previous calls from Ukraine for more attack aircraft, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told lawmakers Wednesday that Ukraine doesn’t want the slow, low-flying aircraft. 

“Ukraine hasn’t expressed much interest,” said Kendall. “I think they, rightfully, are concerned about their survivability.” However, at least one country has expressed interest in the A-10s, Kendall said, though he didn’t name names. 

One notable obstacle: The Warthog is “a very old aircraft, about 45 years old. Replacement parts are very hard [to find],” said Kendall. Defense One’s Audrey Decker has more, here. 

Additional reading: 

The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Iran’s drone, steel, and automobile industries Thursday following Tehran’s unprecedented direct attack against Israel over the weekend. The restrictions and export controls target engine components of that power Iran’s Shahed variant drones, the Treasury Department said in its announcement Thursday. 

New British sanctions are also hitting “several Iranian military organizations, individuals and entities involved in Iran’s UAV and ballistic missile industries,” U.S. officials said. You can read about those here. 

“Over the last three years, we have targeted over 600 individuals and entities connected to Iran’s terrorist activity, its human rights abuses, and its financing of Hamas, the Houthis, Hizballah, and Iraqi militia groups,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. 

And according to President Biden, “I’ve directed my team, including the Department of the Treasury, to continue to impose sanctions that further degrade Iran’s military industries,” he said in his own statement Thursday. 

Reminder: Iran hijacked a ship and has still detained its crew, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in his statement. “The MSC Aries and its crew should be released immediately, and Iran should halt its reckless and unlawful behaviour,” he said Thursday, adding, “Further escalation is in no one’s interest.” More from 10 Downing Street, here. And the Associated Press has more on possible additional sanctions from the European Union, here.

F-35 deliveries could resume in July, but the new jets won’t be combat-ready for a year or more. The Pentagon hasn’t accepted a new F-35 from Lockheed Martin since last July, and dozens—probably more than 100—are piling up in long-term storage while the program struggles to get a key software upgrade to work.

But the U.S. and international partners have agreed on a plan: get the upgrade—dubbed Technology Refresh-3—to a stable point, good enough for training, and the Pentagon will start taking them.

The rub: the fully combat-capable version of the software, which was originally due a year ago, won’t be ready for 12 to 16 months after deliveries restart, F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt told lawmakers during a House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing Tuesday. (The good news? The military’s current F-35s aren’t affected.) D1’s Audrey Decker has more, here.

New: The Navy is set to miss its recruiting goals by 6,700. That will be the second miss in a row, but it represents an improvement of 2,500 over last year, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Richard Cheeseman told the members of the House Armed Services subcommittee for personnel. (USNI News)

Watch CNO Adm. Lisa Franchetti discuss the recruiting problem with Bradley Peniston, here.

And listen to the CNO and the commander of 4th Fleet discuss broader issues in the Navy on Defense One Radio: Ep. 150: The state of the Navy.

Today on the Hill: Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Chief Gen. Randy George brought their Capitol Hill talking points to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning for a posture hearing that began at 9 a.m. ET. Details and video here. 

And this afternoon, the Army’s counter-drone director Maj. Gen. David Stewart discusses new and emerging efforts to protect against and defeat drones. Defense One’s Sam Skove speaks to Stewart in a virtual conversation set for 2 p.m. ET. Registration required (it’s free). Details here.

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