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defense passes

HASC passes defense bill 56-0

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The House Armed Services Committee voted to slow troop reductions in Germany and Afghanistan and sunset a top Pentagon post.

Both parties moved nearer to defying President Donald Trump over military bases named for Confederates.

Alarm over Russia’s anti-U.S. actions in Afghanistan climbed as the president called it”a hoax.”

IT’S THURSDAY AND WELCOME TO MORNING DEFENSE, where we wish you a safe and enjoyable Independence Day and the United States of America a healthful 244th birthday. Our birthday message is cribbed from future President Abraham Lincoln’s admonition in 1858 that does not seem so outdated: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Tips: [email protected], and follow on Twitter @bryandbender, @morningdefense and @politicopro.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Morning Defense will not publish on Friday, July 3 or Monday, July 6. We’ll go back to our usual schedule on Tuesday, July 7, when Connor will be your anchor for your week. Meanwhile, please continue to follow Professional Defense.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT: The House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act just before midnight after lawmakers on both sides picked their own battles but then approved the $741 billion measure in a blowout 56-0 vote.

The panel largely breezed through the markup prior to handling some of the very contentious issues, such as Confederate names on military bases and President Donald Trump’s proposed troop withdrawal from Germany.

Here are some of the highlights:

Removing Confederate names from foundations: The committee adopted 33 to 23 an amendment from Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) , an ex-Army colonel, also Don Bacon (R-Neb.) , a retried Air Force brigadier general, which would establish a process to remove the titles of leaders. Two Republicans, Bacon, and Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, broke with their party in backing the proposal.

The Senate NDAA also includes a provision to wash the titles from foundations within three decades. A compromise bill will almost certainly incorporate a provision to rename, if both last.

No more Confederate flags: Confederate flags could also no longer be displayed on military property under another amendment from Brown that was adopted, our colleague Jacqueline Feldscher reports. It carves out some exceptions, like a state flag which incorporates the Confederate battle flag or one displayed as part of a Civil War exhibit in a museum on Defense Department land.

Troops in Germany: The committee adopted 49 to 7 an amendment from Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) And Bacon to stymie the Trump administration’s plans to attract tens of thousands of troops.

The change blocks a decrease from current troop levels unless the Pentagon certifies it will not significantly undermine the security of the U.S. or allies along with the defense secretary has consulted with European allies.

Running down: The panel, following the lead of the Senate NDAA, embraced an amendment from Rep.Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to eliminate the article of Pentagon chief management officer, even although both chambers have different time frames for winding down the article that has been widely panned as inefficient.

Afghanistan: The panel approved 45 to 11 an amendment from Rep.Jason Crow (D-Colo.) That would put limits on the reduction of troops from Afghanistan under two separate troop levels, 8,000 and 4,00, until the Pentagon submits a report certifying that they wont harm counterterror operations, threat U.S. personnel, or increase danger of expanding terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan.

Yemen: HASC embraced 31 into 25 an amendment from Khanna to pub logistical support for air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition from the Houthis in Yemen. The move is just another swipe at U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Provisions to draw U.S. support from the coalition were included in the House bill last year but had been dropped in discussions with the Senate amid opposition from the White House.

No women in the draft The panel set off a vote on an amendment by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) To implement recommendations from an independent commission which called for demanding women to register for the Selective Service. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) , seat of the staff subcommittee of the panel, promised to have a hearing on the problem.

The Mac Thornberry NDAA: The previous modification accepted Wednesday night, provided by HASC Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) , names the bill after Republican Thornberry of Texas. Thornberry, a well-known purveyor of Rip It energy drinks who chaired the panel for four years, is retiring at the conclusion of the Congress later 13 terms.

Need an amendment? We have been adding text of dozens of alterations into the Guru Document Drawer throughout the markup. Subscribers can read them all here.

Watching the clockRemember when we mentioned they would breeze through the markup? HASC gaveled out at 11: 47 p.m. last night, making it the fastest markup of the previous nine decades .

And congratulations to Jonathan Clifford, whose figure of 11: 33 p.m. came closest to the committee’s real end. Jonathan has the distinction of becoming a back-to-back champ, having won last year when HASC wrapped up just before 7 a.m. Enjoy a second year of bragging rights and a Rip It on us.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, where its own version of the NDAA is on the ground this week Republicans looked unfazed from Trump’s hazard to veto the last invoice if it moves forward with the provision to rename U.S. military facilities named for Confederate leaders, Andrew Desiderio and Marianne LeVine report.

“It was expected,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), an Armed Services Committee member who supports renaming the bases. The committee’s chair, Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) , also noted there is plenty of time. “The veto would take place sometime likely in November,” he explained. “And we have a long, long time between now and November. So we will see.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, urged Trump to not veto the defense bill, as Newsweek reported.

Democrats were not so sanguine. “Prioritizing the base names of Confederate generals within the welfare of our troops is just plain irresponsible and wrong,” Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the panel, said in a statement.

Keeping troops in Afghanistan: During Wednesday’s debate, the Senate voted 60-33 to kill Sen. Rand Paul‘s (R-Ky.) Proposal to mandate that the removal of U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within a year of this bill becoming law and a repeal of the 2001 war authorization which underpins U.S. counterterror operations.

A final deal on the horizon? ) The Senate is expected to resume consideration of its version of the NDAA today. “We think we have created a package that’s acceptable to everybody and we’re going to be hotlining it tonight,” Inhofe said late Wednesday night on the Senate floor. “The Senate will come back into session at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning and hopefully we’ll be able to lock in our deal .”

WHAT GETS IN POTUS’ INTEL BRIEF? “The furor over intellect assessing that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops is pulling the curtain back on an extremely secretive process that’s had to adapt to Donald Trump’s whims — that the delivery of the President’s Daily Brief,” Natasha Bertrand and Kyle Cheney report.

“The president was not briefed because in the time of these allegations,” they were uncorroborated,” national security advisor Robert O’Brien said on Wednesday. “The intelligence community did not have not a consensus. Because of this, the livelihood CIA briefer of the president decided not to short him since it had been unverified intelligence. And, by the way, she’s an exceptional officer and understanding all of the facts I know, I certainly support her decision.”

However, former intelligence officials say that is not the way the briefing system generally works. Uncorroborated intelligence”is included all of the time” in the PDB if it is deemed significant enough to be on the president’s radar,” stated David Priess, a former CIA officer who served as a daily intelligence shorter throughout the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Trump known as the Enforcement dilemma”a hoax,” which as the Washington Post pointed out, contrasts him with the Taliban and Russia than his own spies. 1 Republican senator who was briefed on the intellect, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said it raises questions, The Hill reports. And much more briefings for Congress are planned for now, The Hill added.

Call for sanctions: Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee led by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a letter on Wednesday to use sanctions to punish Russia for the actions.

“These actions by the Russian Federation justify not delay or silence but rather a strong and coordinated response,” they wrote. “To that end, we urge you to freeze assets and trades of Russian persons and financial institutions that have enabled those violent acts.”

Moscow along with the Taliban: A Pentagon report published Wednesday also says Russia has been working with the Taliban to reevaluate a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, our colleague Lara Seligman reports.

The report, which covers December 2019 into May 2020, states that includes offering to facilitate intra-Afghan peace discussions. “Russia very likely continues to encourage U.S.-Taliban reconciliation efforts in the hope that reconciliation will prevent a long-term U.S. military existence,” the report states.

Connected: Afghan contractor handed out Russian cash to kill Americans, officials say, via The New York Times.

AndTrump’s resistance directed intel agencies to short him and less on Russia, through CNN.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW: Sadly, no summer sojourn into tony Aspen, Colo., for its annual Aspen Security Forum this year, as a result of coronavirus. Nevertheless, the high-level gathering of policymakers will go on next month almost, it announced on Wednesday.

The sessions will take place Aug. 4-6, and while details are still to come, there’s absolutely no secret what the subject of the discussions will be. Says Ambassador Nicholas Burns, executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group:”The coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide financial crisis are possibly the greatest challenges to this U.S. since the Second World War.”

Program of events released for D.C. Fourth of July festivities: NBC Washington

House panel postpones hearing on shooting of State Department IG: Reuters

GOP stands out latest House intel hearing amid unofficial boycott: POLITICO Guru

Startup Anduril increases $200 million to create defense contractor: The Washington Post

House bill would demand Pentagon to show troops deployed around the world: Defense News

Rough seas for NATO as Turkey clashes with allies over Libya: POLITICO Europe

Putin wins right to extend his rule until 2036: POLITICO

Air Force chief’s final battle: shaming the defense lobby: POLITICO Pro

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crisis defense

Crisis Actors As Defense Witnesses: Pulatov’s Defense Strategy In The MH17 Trial

Earlier this week, the criminal trial against the four indicted suspects in the MH17 downing continued with the defense lawyers’ requests for additional investigations. The defense team from the Rotterdam law-firm Sjöcrona Van Stigt represents only one of the indicted persons – the Russian citizen Oleg Pulatov – as the three other defendants chose not to be represented in court.

As is typical at this state in criminal court proceedings, the defense team requested additional investigative work from the the prosecutors in areas where the defendant thinks critical exculpatory evidence may have been missed. The prosecutors initially assess such requests, and may accept some but reject others, for instance as unproductive to truth-finding or as already sufficiently researched. The prosecutors’ decision is then subject to a review by the court. Typically, the defense team requests prosecutors to investigate leads pointing to other possible perpetrators or facts that may provide an alibi for the defendant.

A Very Different Trial

MH17 trial is very different than standard criminal proceedings not only due to the large victim count, but also due to the dozens of conspiracy theories that have surfaced in the 6 years since the crime. While in a typical criminal case the alternative scenarios appear naturally – due to ambivalent or incomplete data – in the MH17 case most of them are the product of a concerted fabrication effort traceable to the Russian state or its proxies in DNR/LNR. It is thus the role of the prosecution and investigative judges to be aware of – and to filter out- such planted leads, in order to avoid bad actors clogging the investigative resources and delaying justice.

While the defense team has an obligation to defend exclusively the interest of their client, there is an expectation that they will also be observant of the need for timely truth-finding and of the feelings of the victims’ next of kin, and will abstain from knowingly clogging the investigative process.

During the 2 days of defense pleadings earlier this week, we saw the opposite of such observance. The defense lawyers at no point gave the prosecutors the benefit of the doubt in parsing out the signals from the planted noise. Instead, they requested the prosecution to revisit and re-investigate long-debunked conspiracy theories, many of which have meanwhile been disowned even by their creators. What is more: a simple due diligence based on open sources would have informed the defense team of the spuriousness and dead-end prospects of these alternative theories.

Take the case, for example, of Carlos the Spanish Air-Controller, a fictional online persona that appeared on social media in the hours after the incident, posting assertions that he worked as an air-controller in Ukraine and had been monitoring a Ukrainian fighter jet attacking MH17. This persona was interviewed live on RT (the propaganda channel has since deleted the interview, which can be seen here).Subsequent investigations by RFE/RL and the OCCRP proved that Carlos the Air-Controller never existed, and his persona was played by a Spanish ex-convict operating a pro-Kremlin troll account. The Twitter handle used by “Carlos” was later reused by a Russian-language inauthentic account bearing all hallmarks of a troll-farm sleeper account.

Despite all evidence “Carlos” was a fake persona intentionally created to distribute misinformation and interfere with truth-finding, the defense team has now requested that the Joint Investigation Team spend resources to obtain and investigate the metadata from that twitter account – a time-consuming process that requires a court subpoena to be sent to Twitter.

Crisis Actors as Eyewitnesses

Even more resource-clogging is the defense team’s insistence that the JIT seek out and interrogate more than a dozen eyewitnesses who claim to have seen or heard one or more Ukrainian fighter jets attacking MH17. This request comes in the heels of the prosecutors’ detailed presentation of the technical impossibility of an air-to-air shoot-down scenario. Such a scenario is rebutted both by Ukrainian and Russian primary radar data made available to the JIT, as well as by the recordings of conversations between Russian and Ukrainian air-controllers in the moments after MH17 was shot down. Despite objective data pointing to the impossibility of the air-to-air scenario, the JIT still conducted interviews with several alleged eyewitnesses who had come forward – and concluded that none of them could provide credible first-hand accounts that would put into question the objective radar data.

To justify its claim that “not every stone was turned by the JIT”, the defense team played in court a video-collage of alleged eye-witnesses who claim the saw fighter jets flying near MH17 at the time of the shoot-down. The collage included segments from TV interviews with local residents previously broadcast on Russian media, the BBC, or recorded by citizen-journalists.

Many of the interviewees from the collage cannot be identified, and in some cases their identity appears to be unknown to the journalists (see the minutes of JIT’s questioning of a BBC reporter, hacked by an yet unattributed actor and leaked by the Russian-owned special-purpose media project “Bonanza Media”). Of the interviewees whom we were able to identify, all appeared to have been inauthentic “eyewitnesses”: one was a bad-faith crisis actor, pursuing a disinformation agenda on behalf of DNR, another had made incompatibly contradictory statements at different times, and a third one told us that he had lied in his original statement which the defense team played in court.

The Crisis Actor

The first “eyewitness” shown in the collage was presented as Valentina, a “foreign language teacher”. She provided an ostensibly first-hand account as a local resident who heard and saw a Ukrainian SU fighter-jets circling in the air above Snizhne and then producing a loud bang, following which she saw wreckage of the MH17 Boeing rain down from the sky. There is no doubt from her words that she describes the events in the first person, as in that she saw these events herself.

Using a reverse image search tool, we identified the witness as Valentina Chaika, a resident of the town of Torez in Donbass. While, until the start of the war in Eastern Ukraine she indeed taught foreign languages, at the start of war she became a journalist, and – in her own words – took on the function of improving the global perception of the Donetsk People’s Republic. As she said in an interview about her mission in 2014, it was “war-time journalism”, which she said is akin to propaganda.

More importantly than her mis-identification as a random local resident, in the clip played to court, is the fact that what Ms. Chaika stated in the video sharply contradicts her own earlier statements about what she witnessed on 17 July 2014. In an interview given to an online Russian TV channel in 2017, she describes the events of 17 July 2014 but does not claim to have seen any fighter planes. That account of her first-hand experiences is as follows: she arrived to the crash site shortly after the downing, due to the fact she was nearby. Soon after that, she saw the news that Ukrainian authorities had blamed separatists forces in shooting down the plane, and she “felt the need to tell the world this cannot be true”. She then talked to various people from neighboring villages Rassypnoe and Hrabovo which “were closer to the crash” and “many if not all of whom said they had heard the sound of one or two fighter jets”. There is no doubt left that she does not claim to have seen or heard any fighter jets herself.

Even more strikingly contradicting her later testimony is her statement in a 2015 interview where she explicitly says on camera: “No one saw the SU fighter jets… there were clouds and one could not possibly see them… but you can’t confuse their sound, and they could be heard”

In a different interview, given to the Russian TV/website News-front in 2015, Valentina Chaika says that “it could be heard up in the air the sound of 2 SU Ukrainian fighter planes”, and that “there were witnesses who saw these SU plans attack the Boeing and then it disintegrated in mid-air”. While in this interview – differently than the 2017 interview – she implies she herself heard the sound of fighter jets, she again leaves no doubt that not she, but other “eyewitnesses saw the SU planes”.

In a third interview, reported here, Valentina (who here claims to have been in Hrabovo at the time of the crash), claims to have seen two fighter jets near MH17. When given pictures of different fighter planes, she pointed to a MIG-29MU1. This is the same model that was super-imposed on a forged Russian Ministry of Defense video which has since been disowned by the Kremlin.

Valentina Chaika’s changing and self-contradicting public testimony appears to be synced with Russian disinformation narratives, which is not surprising given that she appears as a regular contributor to a Russian inauthentic-news operation, News-Front.info. Appearing on the channel on the first anniversary of MH17’s downing, she claimed that she saw first-hand that the bodies strewn at the crash site were “bloodless” and “like they had been dead for a long time and looking like manikins… with a strong sent of Formaldehyde in the air”, thus echoing one of the most bizarre early conspiracies propagated by Russian sources, including by the main indicted suspect Igor Girkin.

In a further conspiracy statement in the interview, she questioned why there had been “no crying relatives of the victims on television”, implying that the whole shoot-down was a staged operation. In a yet different interview that Ms. Chaika gave on the anniversary she stated that the victim’s bodies changed color during the night.

News-front.info is a Crimea-based disinformation portal which has been banned by Facebook and YouTube due to inauthentic behaviour – a move that was protested by the Russian government. The portal operates in 12 languages, with a focus in Russia and Ukraine and relatively strong presence among fringe-conspiracy audiences in Germany, Bulgaria and Georgia. An investigation by Die Zeit cited an insider stated that the operation was funded by Russia’s security agency FSB. The portal denies this and claims it is funded through donations.

The Star-Gazer

Another self-styled witness to a fighter-jet attack on MH17, featured in Pulatov’s defense’s collage, appears in different media outlets variably as either Lev Bulatov or Gleb Filatov, and tells an unconvincing story of having used half of his Soviet-era 7-time magnification binoculars to spot the moment of the actual attack, including the launch of the missile and subsequent escape of the Ukrainian SU fighter. He even (implausibly) says he was able to read the fighter plane’s tail number. In an interview for the Russian newspaper KP, he claims to have seen not one but 3 SU-25 planes flying next to MH17. However, in the interview used in the court collage – given to Max van der Werff – he says he only saw one SU-25. He says the fighter jet made “three loud bangs, sounds I will never forget“. Mr. Bulatov or Filatov complains to Max van der Werff that no investigators take him seriously, to which the interviewer suggests that maybe people do not believe he was able to see the fighter plane. Mr. Bulatov/Filatov then laughs and replies “if someone wants to see, he will see“.

The Young Man Who Says He Lied

Using reverse face-search, we were able to identify a third alleged eyewitness shown in the defense lawyer’s collage. He was interviewed by Graham Philips, a former RT freelancer in Eastern Ukraine. We contacted this person (his name is withheld at his request). In a DM chat and speaking on the record, he told Bellingcat: “I never saw any fighter jet, or any other plane, on 17 July 2014″. He disowned his words from the interview shown in the collage. Speaking from Eastern Ukraine, he declined to explain what had prompted him to say that he saw fighter planes on camera when interviewed by Phillips. He was 18 at the time of the shoot-down.

Clearly, at least in the case of Ms. Chaika, her public testimony is inauthentic and purposefully misleading. It also changed over time, and reflecting other disinformation tropes that were propagated by parties with a vested interest in distorting information under the main prosecution scenario – such as the main suspect, the Russian state. Such disinformation activity is unlikely to have been sporadic and uncoordinated, and would have been especially needed given the earlier self-incrimination by militants and Russian media who had reported a BUK hit of a Ukrainian transport plane. A number of local residents have repeated to media essentially identical – but hardly plausible from a scientific perspective – sightings of a small military fighter jet flying above the clouds; with some interviewees even embellishing the story with having seen the moving missile between the fighter jet and the Boeing 777. From the court presentation by the prosecution, we understand that none of these media-facing witnesses has come forward to testify to the joint investigation team, despite multiple calls for witnesses,

The defense team’s insistence that all alternative hypotheses – including the implausible ones, and such traceable to bad actors – do not help in truth-finding, and ultimately will not help, but may rather impede their efforts to defend their client’s rights in court. A prolonged and frustrating dead-end chasing is unlikely to win Mr. Pulatov the court’s sympathies. These efforts do appear to help, however, the interests of the Russian state, which can only benefit from a prolonged trial and further deferral of the truth. Sooner or later, the defense team may need to decide who their primary client is.

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defense Senate

Senate defense bill limits Air Force’s aircraft retirement plans

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to give the Air Force more F-35 fighter jets and drones, but the panel’s version of the 2021 defense policy bill leaves many questions open about the future of the service’s legacy aircraft.

In the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 budget request, the service proposed retiring a number of its B-1 bombers, A-10 Warthog attack planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones, KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, and C-130H planes. Air Force leaders said the reductions were necessary to free up money needed for key investments in future technology areas like space and joint all-domain command and control.

However, the proposed version of the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10 puts some limits on those proposed cuts. Instead of mandating the Air Force to retain a certain number of specific types of aircraft, SASC’s defense bill “establishes a minimum number of aircraft for each major mission area … and prohibits the divestment of aircraft until the minima are reached to ensure that Air Force can meet [National Defense Strategy] and combatant command requirements,” SASC said in a summary of the bill.

But with only a summary of the bill available, it’s unclear how that compares with the Air Force’s planned inventory reductions and whether any retirements will be permitted at all.

According to a committee staffer, the numbers proposed by SASC include a “primary mission aircraft inventory” of 1,182 fighters, 190 drones, 92 bombers, 412 tankers, 230 tactical airlift platforms, 235 strategic airlift platforms, 84 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and 106 combat search-and-rescue aircraft.

Specifically, the bill blocks the retirement of three A-10 Warthog squadrons, limits F-15C divestment, and delays the retirements of KC-10 and KC-135 tankers until after the KC-46’s technical challenges are resolved. The Air Force had planned to retire 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s in FY21.

The summary of the bill makes it clear the SASC is concerned that the Air Force’s plan to trade existing aircraft for future capabilities could lead to a drop in near-term readiness as well as an scenario where legacy aircraft are never actually replaced.

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The bill “requires the Secretary of Defense to submit an annual aviation procurement plan across all services,” the summary stated. It includes language that cements the Air Force’s aspiration to field 386 combat squadrons as a requirement, although one staffer clarified that the provision is more a goal than a mandate, and that there is no timeline associated with it.

SASC’s legislation is far from set in stone. The bill will move to the Senate floor for debate, but its House counterpart is working on its own version of the defense authorization bill, and both chambers will have to agree on a final bill.

Where’s the money going?

The House and Senate Armed Services committees make funding recommendations, which are then used by congressional budgeteers in the appropriations committees to draw up the final funding bills. Nonetheless, SASC made a number of key funding authorizations that could mean major increases for certain aircraft programs.

  • Unsurprisingly, it recommended a major increase for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, approving the purchase of 60 F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing models, 12 F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variants, and 23 F-35C carrier-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. That’s a net increase of 16 aircraft: 12 F-35As, two F-35Bs and two F-35Cs.
  • General Atomics was another major beneficiary of the legislation. SASC authorized $165 million for additional MQ-1 Predator drones for the Army and $170.6 million for MQ-9 Reaper drones for the Air Force, which will keep the production line going ahead of a replacement program.
  • It adds an extra $128 million for additional XQ-58 Valkyrie drones from Kratos. The Valkyrie is a low-cost combat drone currently being tested by the Air Force as part of the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology effort, which seeks a “loyal wingman” aircraft that can penetrate contested environments and take on more risk than manned planes. The committee also calls for an LCAAT operational test plan and utility evaluation.
  • It fully funded the Air Force’s KC-46 tanker program and B-21 bomber program, according to SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
  • The bill also “increases funding for critical capabilities that will help the United States maintain air superiority in contested environments, including Systems of Systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems (STITCHES) and advanced air-to-air weapons”

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Business defense planetary

NASA planetary defense efforts continue during pandemic

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NEOCam
NASA’s planetary defense program supports ground-based search for near Earht objects as well as space missions, like the NEO Surveillance Mission in early stages of development. Credit: NASA/JPL

WASHINGTON — NASA’s small but high-profile planetary defense program has overcome disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic to continue searching for potentially hazardous near Earth objects.

NASA’s Near Earth Objects (NEO) Observations Program supports a variety of primarily ground-based efforts to discover, track and characterize NEOs. Those efforts, though, were slowed for a time by the pandemic, which temporarily closed observatories in the United States and other countries.

“We did see a number of observatories that had to close, either on their own or because their host organizations or host observatory sites had to close,” said Kelly Fast, manager of the NEO Observations Program, during a June 3 “Asteroid Day” webinar hosted by the Association of Space Explorers.

She said the program hit an “extreme point” in terms of the number of observatories closed in late March, but since then some observatories have found ways to resume at least partial operations with new COVID-19 safety protocols. That’s included the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona as well as telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

The closures did not significantly affect the number of new NEOs discovered. “It is a concern, but we’ve been watching the statistics at the Minor Planet Center, what’s being received there, and between what’s coming in from the NASA efforts and around the world, we’re doing OK,” she said.

Fast said that more than 2,400 NEOs were discovered by various search efforts in 2019. Through early June of this year, 1,222 had been found.

That observation effort is part of the NASA’s planetary defense program, a relatively small part of the agency with an annual budget of $150 million. However, its effort to search for any asteroids that might pose an impact risk to the Earth gives the program a much higher public profile. Public opinion surveys have often ranked that program as a higher priority among the general public than some of NASA’s far larger exploration efforts.

The program’s budget also funds NASA’s first dedicated planetary defense mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). That spacecraft will fly to the near Earth asteroid Didymos and collide with a small moon orbiting the asteroid in September 2022. Planetary scientists then plan to measure the change in the moon’s orbit caused by the impact to better understand the effects of the “kinetic impactor” technique that could be used to change the orbit of an asteroid threatening to impact Earth.

DART remains on schedule for launch in July 2021 on a Falcon 9 despite the pandemic, said Elena Adams, mission systems engineer for DART at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, which is managing the mission, during the webinar. The spacecraft bus, with its electric propulsion systems installed, recently arrived at the lab for integration and testing.

NASA plans to follow up DART with a second space mission, the NEO Surveillance Mission (NEOSM). That will deploy a spacecraft called NEO Surveyor at the Earth-Sun L-1 Lagrange point that will be used to search for NEOs using a small telescope and infrared detectors.

NASA announced in September 2019 that the mission, previously known as NEOCam and a finalist in an earlier round of the agency’s Discovery program of planetary science missions, would proceed as a “directed” mission within the planetary defense program. Agency officials said it made sense for NEOSM to be a directed mission since its primary goal — detect at least 90% of NEOs at least 140 meters in diameter — was established by Congress in a 2005 NASA authorization bill.

Amy Mainzer, a University of Arizona planetary scientist and survey director for NEOSM, said at the Asteroid Day webinar that the mission is working to reach a programmatic milestone known as Key Decision Point B in the fall, after the completion of a series of reviews.

In a separate presentation June 1 at a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), Mainzer said a launch date for the mission depends on the funding profile. “If we are able to achieve an optimal funding profile,” she said, “we would be able to launch in the year 2025.” That profile would require NEOSM receiving about $90 million in fiscal year 2021, but NASA’s budget request for 2021 released in February did not spell out a specific funding amount for the mission. That request had only $83.6 million available in the planetary defense program for both space missions other than DART as well as ground-based searches and other analysis efforts.

Having a space-based telescope like NEOSM would have eased some of the pressures on the program caused when the pandemic closed observatories. Fast, speaking at the SBAG meeting, noted that NASA and others have conducted exercises in the past about how they would respond to an approaching asteroid. Those exercises didn’t include the possibility of observatories being shut down by a pandemic, she said. “We’ve never layered our disasters.”

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defense Klobuchar

Klobuchar on defense as Floyd death puts spotlight on record

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharPolice killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick Cortez Masto says she’s not interested in being Biden VP Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 MORE (D-Minn.) defended her record as a county prosecutor on Friday in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, which has shocked the country and sparked days of violent protests back in Minneapolis, the largest city in her home state. 

Klobuchar specifically pushed back after reports circulated online falsely accusing her of declining to press charges in 2006 against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

“This idea that I somehow declined a case, which has been reported on some news blogs … against this officer is absolutely false. It is a lie. I don’t know what else to say about it, than it is a lie. The case was investigated …. That investigation continued into a time where I was already sworn into the U.S. Senate,” Klobuchar told MSNBC. 

“It was handled and sent to the grand jury by my successor,” she added. 

In 2006, Chauvin was one of six officers involved in the shooting of a man allegedly involved in a stabbing. The incident took place on October 29, when Klobuchar, while still county prosecutor, was deep into her ultimately successful Senate bid. The case wasn’t sent to a grand jury until after she was sworn in. 

A Hennepin County prosecutor spokesperson said in a statement that Klobuchar “had no involvement in the prosecution of this case at all.” 

Klobuchar has been dogged for years over questions on her tenure as Hennepin County attorney, which includes Minneapolis, over criticism that she did not bring criminal charges in case including police-involved deaths. 

Now Floyd’s death, and the reignited national discussion around police misconduct, is putting the spotlight back on Klobuchar just as she’s being vetted as a potential vice presidential pick.

Klobuchar declined to take herself out of the running for vice president on Friday, telling MSNBC that Biden would “make the decision for him, for our country, for the pandemic and the crisis we’re facing.” 

“He will make that decision. He’ll decide who he’s considering,” she added.

Klobuchar also sought to defend her record on race-related issues, acknowledging that there is “institutional racism” and positioning herself as “one of leaders” in the Senate “in terms of pushing for sentencing reform … a leader on voting rights, that’s my record.” 

But Rep. Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnLifting our voices — and votes Clyburn cringed at Biden’s ‘you ain’t black’ remarks Scalise blasts Democrats for calling on certain companies to return PPP loans MORE (D-S.C.), a close ally of Biden’s, acknowledged this week that Floyd’s death would likely have an impact on the VP race. 

“We are all victims sometimes of timing,” he told reporters, according to CNN. “This is very tough timing for Amy Klobuchar.”

Asked about the same topic during an interview with Vanity Fair, he said that “it certainly won’t help.” 

“But it’s not just this. Her history with similar situations when she was a prosecutor came up time and again during the campaign,” he added. “I suspect this incident plays into that.” 

Biden in a separate MSNBC interview declined to offer specifics on his pick. But on Friday MoveOn, a progressive advocacy group, called on Klobuchar to “immediately take herself out of the running” because of previous role as Hennepin’s prosecutor and a “failure to hold the @MinneapolisPD accountable for racism and abuse.”

Klobuchar isn’t the only potential VP pick who has ties to law enforcement. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – George Floyd’s death sparks protests, National Guard activation Police killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick MORE (D-Calif.), who has faced questions over record on criminal justice, was California attorney general and  Rep. Val Demmings (D-Fla.) is a former police chief. 

But Klobuchar — who, unlike the other two women, is white — has been trailed for years over questions about her handling of cases when she was prosecutor and skepticism from black voters, who are an influential voting block for Democrats. 

Klobuchar faced criticism during the presidential campaign after an Associated Press review found “new evidence and myriad inconsistencies” in the case against Myon Burrell, a black man who was sentenced as a teenager to life in prison after a stray bullet killed an 11-year-old black girl.

Klobuchar subsequently called for an investigation into the handling of the case against Burrell, who was convicted twice — once by Klobuchar and again, after the conviction was reversed, by her successor. 

The Washington Post also reported last year that Klobuchar declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases where individuals were killed during police encounters — one of several reports from the time that shined new light on her record as a county prosecutor as she battled for the party’s presidential nomination.

Klobuchar has since said her decision to send the cases to grand juries, routine at the time in the state, was “wrong.” 

“I actually no longer think that that’s the right way to do it. I think you should take personal responsibility,” Klobuchar said in January at a forum hosted by VICE. 

She added on Friday that she thought “it would have been much better if I took the responsibility and looked at the cases and made the decision myself. But let me make this clear, we did not blow off these cases.” 

Klobuchar has been providing updates to Floyd’s case; she helped break the news on Friday that Chauvin had been arrested. She’s also called for “systemic reform” and a “large scale federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.” 

But she’s also caught criticism including when she put out a statement this week about Floyd’s death that did not mention him by name. 

“When I said that Senator Klobuchar should in no way be a VP pick, I’m talking about a person that could write a statement about the police murder of George Floyd without saying POLICE MURDER or GEORGE FLOYD,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She The People.

Klobuchar’s problems with black voters run deeper than just the new scrutiny she’s facing this week, which has included some calls to withdraw herself from consideration as Biden’s VP. She got approximately 3 percent of the vote in South Carolina. A CNN exit poll had her receiving 1 percent of the black vote. 

A group of black female activists also urged Biden not to pick Klobuchar in a March Washington Post op-ed

“A choice such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who failed to prosecute controversial police killings and is responsible for the imprisonment of Myon Burrell, will only alienate black voters,” they wrote.

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asteroid Business defense

NASA asteroid defense test mission may trigger artificial meteor shower, study finds

A planned NASA mission to test its capability to defend Earth from an incoming asteroid could cause the planet’s first-ever artificial meteor shower, a study found earlier this year.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022.

CHINESE SPACE JUNK NARROWLY MISSED HITTING NEW YORK CITY, REPORT SAYS

NASA said the $69 million self-destruct mission is the first aimed at testing its ability to deflect an asteroid by ramming a spacecraft into it at high speeds.

The resulting impact would blast material from the surface of the asteroid and — at least a small amount of it — close enough to Earth that will eventually be drawn toward the ground, according to a March 23 study in The Planetary Science Journal.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022. (NASA)

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022. (NASA)

Only a tiny bit of the total ejected material, known as ejecta, would actually make it through the atmosphere over a period of thousands of years, the study found. Much of it will remain within the gravitational pull of Didymos.

Some of that material could present a hazard to future space vehicles, according to the study’s author, Dr. Paul Wiegert, an astronomy and physics professor at the University of Western Ontario.

But a little bit of ejecta, the bits moving fastest after DART’s impact, could reach Earth’s sky relatively quickly and give scientists an opportunity to see the asteroid’s makeup. As the particles burn up entering the atmosphere, scientists could use the color of the light they generate to determine what materials were present.

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The study focused on particles of about 1 centimeter in diameter or smaller, although there is a possibility that the particles could be larger. There are also expected to be many more extremely small particles that would be “almost undetectable.”

The ejecta would have to be substantially dense and larger to threaten the Earth’s surface, but particles from the DART mission or future attempts at knocking an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth could spend centuries traveling the solar system — potentially becoming hazards to space operations at some point in the future, according to Wiegert.

He likened it to how space junk buildup in low Earth orbit is becoming a growing problem because early missions didn’t account for how they would dispose of defunct satellites.

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Business defense Trump

Trump uses Defense Production Act to order meat processing plants to stay open | TheHill

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWest Virginia announces six-week reopening process Americans receive signed Trump letters in the mail describing coronavirus stimulation checks Coronavirus warnings seemed in classified presidential briefings in January, February: report MORE signed an executive order on Tuesday evening, using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to order plants plants to stay open and designating them as critical infrastructure. 

The arrangement will apply to all meat plants at the U.S. in an effort to prevent further disruptions to the food supply. Trump signaled he’d sign this order before on Tuesday following estimates that meat production capacity nationwide could be reduced by as much as 80 percent.

“It’s essential that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (“meat and poultry”) from the food distribution chain continue fulfilling and operating orders to ensure a continued source of protein to Americans.  However, outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some processing facilities have led to the reduction in a few of those facilities’ production capacity,” the president wrote in this order.

He said that activities in the states have led to closures of plants but these closures threaten the distribution chain. Trump’s decision comes after the chairman of Tyson Foods cautioned that the nation’s food supply has been”breaking” as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Given the large quantity of meat and poultry processed by several facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a sizable influence on the food supply chain,” Trump wrote. 

The arrangement delegates the Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFocus develops on food processing plants amid fresh closings Coronavirus outbreaks causes call for more protections to meat plant workers USDA: SNAP advantages up 40 percent MORE to take action to make sure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday that he planned to signal this order to address”liability issues” associated with this food supply chain and specifically mentioned Tyson Foods. 

Tyson Foods has closed a pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after two people died and 148 workers tested positive, as well as a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, because too many workers have been absent.

Other food processing companies have also closed plants.

A JBS beef production centre temporarily closed after it had been the center of a coronavirus outbreak in Green Bay, Wis., on Sunday, which had been the fourth JBS plant to shut during the pandemic.

Smithfield has shut three pork processing plants in Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota, where a single employee expired and 518 employees are infected. The company stated the Wisconsin and Missouri plants each had a number of employees who tested positive.

Trump initially utilized the Defense Production Act (DPA), a law that gives the president broad authority to boost the production output of crucial items in a national emergency, in March to arrange General Motors to ramp up production of life-saving ventilators.

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Categories
defense Global

Global defense spending sees biggest spike in a decade

The U.S. easily remains the largest defense spender in the world, accounting for 38 percent of global military expenditures in 2019, according to a new report by SIPRI. (Cpl. Cody Rowe/U.S. Marine Corps)

WASHINGTON — Global defense spending hit $1.917 trillion in 2019, a 3.6 percent increase over previous year figures and the largest increase in one year since 2010, according to the annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The United States remains the world’s largest defense spender in 2019, with its $732 billion representing 38 percent of global military spending, SIPRI has reported. That was followed by China ($261 billion, at 14 percent of global total), India ($71.1 billion, at 3.7 percent), Russia ($65.1 billion, at 3.4 percent) and Saudi Arabia ($61.9 billion, at 3.2 percent).

All told, the top five nations accounted for 62 percent of overall military spending.

“Global military expenditure was 7.2 percent higher in 2019 than it was in 2010, showing a trend that military spending growth has accelerated in recent years,” SIPRI’s Nan Tian said in a statement. “This is the highest level of spending since the 2008 global financial crisis and probably represents a peak in expenditure.”

Large year-over-year increases were seen in China (5.1 percent), India (6.8 percent), Russia (4.5 percent), Germany (10 percent) and South Korea (7.5 percent).

Regionally, military spending increased in Europe by 5 percent, Asia and Oceania by 4.8 percent, the Americas by 4.7 percent, and Africa by 1.5 percent. Combined military spending by the 29 NATO member states was $1.035 trillion in 2019.

The top 15 military spenders, as collected by the think tank SIPRI. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.)
The top 15 military spenders, as collected by the think tank SIPRI. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.)

SIPRI is widely considered to be the authority on military expenditures and exports, having gathered such data for decades. Other key developments, as noted by the researchers:

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  • Together, the top 15 countries spent $1.553 trillion, 81 percent of global military spending. All but three countries in the top 15 had higher military expenditures in 2019 than in 2010, the exceptions being the U.S. (15 percent drop), the U.K. (15 percent drop) and Italy (11 percent drop.)
  • Total military expenditures of the 11 countries in the Middle East for which data is available decreased by 7.5 percent to $147 billion, driven in part by an estimated 16 percent drop from Saudi Arabia. That overall percentage also decreased in 2018. SIPRI was unable to calculate totals from Qatar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
  • Military spending in South America was relatively unchanged from the previous year, coming in at $52.8 billion. Fifty-one percent of that spending, $26.9 billion, came from Brazil.
  • Combined military expenditures from Africa grew by 1.5 percent to an estimated $41.2 billion in 2019, the first time that region saw a spending increase in five years. That includes plus-ups in Burkina Faso (22 percent), Cameroon (1.4 percent), Mali (3.6 percent), the Central African Republic (8.7 percent), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (16 percent) and Uganda (52 percent).
  • Of the 149 countries SIPRI studied, 10 allocated 4 percent or more of their gross domestic product to the military, which the group defines as the “military burden.” Thirteen countries had a military burden of 3 to 3.9 percent of GDP; 24 had a military burden of 2 to 2.9 percent; 65 had a military burden of 1 to 1.9 percent; and 34 allocated less than 1 percent of their GDP to the military.
  • Three countries had no military expenditures in 2019: Costa Rica, Iceland and Panama.

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Aaron Mehta is Deputy Editor and Senior Pentagon Correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Department of Defense and its international partners.

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