The D Brief: Air raid on Kyiv; WH responds to House defense bill; Estonia’s drone hotbed; US crime falls; And a bit more.

The D Brief: Air raid on Kyiv; WH responds to House defense bill; Estonia’s drone hotbed; US crime falls; And a bit more.

The U.S. is transferring one more Patriot air defense system to Ukraine, officials told the New York Times and Associated Press Tuesday. There’s already one such U.S.-provided Patriot system inside Ukraine. The second one will be transferred from Poland, U.S. officials said. 

The decision comes ahead of the next Pentagon-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting Thursday in Brussels. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is traveling to Belgium Wednesday to prepare for that meeting, which would be the 23rd of its kind since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. 

Germany and the Netherlands have also sent their Patriot systems to Ukraine, whose President Volodymir Zelenskyy has been pleading for more such systems for the last several months. “Pentagon officials refuse to disclose how many [Patriots] it has, but one senior military official said that the Army has deployed only 14 of them, in the United States and around the world,” the Times reports. 

By the way: Ukraine says it shot down 29 of 30 missiles and drones fired overnight from nearly half a dozen Russian military locations, including inside occupied Crimea. Two dozen Iranian Shahed drones were allegedly downed, along with four cruise missiles and one Kinzhal hypersonic missile. The one that made it through Ukraine’s air defenses was a Iskander ballistic missile launched from Crimea. 

“Anti-aircraft defense worked in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Poltava, Kharkiv, and Vinnytsia regions,” Ukraine’s air force said on Telegram. 

Still, Ukraine plans to keep some of its donated F-16s abroad. “A certain number of aircraft will be stored at secure air bases outside of Ukraine so that they are not targeted here,” Serhii Holubtsov, head of aviation within Ukraine’s air force, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Those F-16s might be swapped in for war-damaged aircraft or used to train Ukrainian pilots. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have promised to send Ukraine more than 60 U.S.-made F-16s. (Via AP)

From the region: How Estonia is becoming a hotbed for drone warfare. With a close eye on Ukraine’s use of drones, Estonians are fielding new kit, changing doctrine, and revamping training for unmanned systems in case they also have to repel a Russian invasion one day. Estonia — a country with a population of just 1.3 million — is also being uniquely thrifty, working to field systems whose price is often orders of magnitude cheaper than similar U.S. systems. Defense One’s Sam Skove got a close-up look at these efforts on a trip funded by the Estonian ministry of defense. Read on, here.

New: Rheinmetall just opened a repair center for armored vehicles in Ukraine. It’s believed to be the first major foreign-owned arms facility in the country, and it’s not intended to be the last. Skove lists the next planned centers, here.

Developing: Ukraine says it will sell some state-owned companies to raise war funds. The sale is expected to generate perhaps $100 million—not much compared to the billions of dollars of foreign aid pouring into the country​—but officials say it’s better to sell off unprofitable or idle assets, and to do it before they are potentially destroyed or captured by Russia. NYT, here.

The U.S. just lifted its ban on sending arms to a controversial Ukrainian military unit. On Tuesday, the State Department said it would no longer block weapons and training for the Azov Brigade, which is “among Ukraine’s most effective and popular fighting units but it has been dogged by its origins as a volunteer battalion that drew fighters from far-right circles and criticism for some of its tactics. The U.S. had banned the regiment from using American weapons, citing the neo-Nazi ideology of some of its founders,” AP reported.

The current members of the Azov Brigade reject accusations of extremism and any ties with far-right movements. But the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s origins in its efforts to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.” More, here.

Related 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 here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russia in the country’s first democratic election.

The White House says it has a few “concerns” with the $884 billion House-passed defense policy bill (PDF), known as the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2025. The Senate is working on its version of the bill, and for the past 63 years the two get reconciled with various compromises into a final version that’s eventually passed by the end of the calendar year—after lawmakers and the White House have had plenty of time to negotiate, posture, and protest for their particular conservative or progressive camps. Among the White House’s list of concerns (PDF): 

  • $700 million less for submarine and shipbuilding than President Biden requested, and a reduction of one planned ship for the year ahead.
  • The House-passed bill would add a third continental missile interceptor site on the East Coast by 2030. However, “There is no operational need for such a site to protect the Homeland against potential ballistic missiles originating from Iran or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday. 
  • The White House also doesn’t want a Drone Corps for the Army because it might “create an unwarranted degree of specialization and limit flexibility to employ evolving capabilities.” 
  • And the White House isn’t ready yet to raise lower enlisted paychecks by at least 15%, at least until its most recent formal review of military compensation is completed. That significant pay raise—totaling more than $4 billion in additional funding—was drawn up to help increase competition with the civilian workforce, push back against inflation, and boost lagging recruitment. 
  • At any rate, OMB noted, “In January, Servicemembers received a 5.2 percent basic pay increase, the largest since 2003, coupled with an average 5.4 percent increase in basic allowance for housing and a 1.7 percent increase in basic allowance for subsistence. The President’s FY 2025 Budget Request includes a basic pay raise of 4.5 percent. If the President’s FY 2025 request is enacted, Servicemembers will have received a 15 percent basic pay increase in just three years.”
  • OMB also warns that housing allowance increases in the House’s bill “would cost DoD more than $14.8 billion in FYs 2025-2029,” including $2.8 billion that’s not accounted for in the bill’s current language.
  • The White House wants to retain the ability to reduce or realign special operations forces as commanders see fit. 
  • And it’s not interested in dropping drug testing for potential recruits’ marijuana use, as required in the House-passed bill. “The use of marijuana by Servicemembers is a military readiness and safety concern,” the OMB said. 
  • It’s also not interested in “Air Base Air Defense Site” requirements to be drawn up by the Secretary of the Air Force. Current standards already involve “Combatant commanders holistically assess[ing] overall force protection, including air and missile defense requirements,” and adding to that “risks misaligning resources from a more holistic and integrated force protection approach, resulting in suboptimal operational outcomes,” OMB said. 
  • The White House still wants to close its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. GOP-led House lawmakers, however, do not share that desire. 

There are a few priorities the White House would like to see added to the upcoming defense policy bill. Those include “a durable, multi-year reauthorization and expansion of counter-drone authority” to protect against “a myriad of drone threats” to the homeland. They also include a request for 20,000 more Afghans who helped U.S. forces to resettle here stateside, as well as a plan for the Army and Marine Corps to buy used commercial ships. And it wants $60 million more “to reimburse certain coalition nations for support provided to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.” 

House leadership reax: In a short statement Tuesday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers seized on the White House’s hesitation to back what would effectively amount to a 19.5% pay raise for lower enlisted troops, calling it “offensive and wrong.” (Worth noting: Rogers was among the 147 Republicans who unprecedentedly refused to certify the 2020 election results despite no supporting evidence of election fraud.) “Instead of supporting this commonsense proposal, President Biden is once again turning his back on our servicemembers,” Rogers claimed, though he did not elaborate. 

For the record: The latest House-passed NDAA is 1,022 pages long. Last year’s NDAA conference report was more than 3,000 pages long. But “The first NDAA from June 1961 was half a page long and had three sections: aircraft, missiles, and naval vessels,” scholar Elena Wicker of U.S. Army Futures Command pointed out Tuesday.

China’s overseas bases aren’t a big threat yet, RAND scholars conclude in a report released on Monday. For the next six years at least, the report says, Beijing will remain poorly positioned to build foreign bases or run them in a way that will improve their ability to contest U.S. naval power. Read on, here.  

And lastly, some good news: America’s violent crime rate has fallen sharply after surging during the pandemic, the FBI announced Monday citing the latest statistics from the first quarter of 2024. 

“Murder decreased by 26.4 percent, rape decreased by 25.7 percent, robbery decreased by 17.8 percent, and aggravated assault decreased by 12.5 percent,” the agency said. Property crime also dropped by more than 15 percent.

Context: “The return of gang-violence prevention programs has helped ease the number of shootings, while domestic killings have fallen as families are no longer stuck at home together,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Police are also more active after a pullback in enforcement during the racial-justice protests, according to local officials.”

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