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Five defense challenges on the horizon for Biden

Five defense challenges on the horizon for Biden
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE will have plenty on his plate when he is inaugurated, including several defense issues that could quickly crop up.

Biden has pledged to reverse or review many of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE’s defense and foreign policy moves over the last four years when he takes office in January.

In addition to those plans, Biden will likely have to contend with the more liberal wing of his party that is pushing for bigger changes, such as slashing the defense budget.

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The next two months could also bring unexpected challenges that might land in Biden’s lap. Trump injected fresh tumult into the transition period by firing Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief Watch Out: Progressives are eyeing the last slice of the budget Biden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One MORE on Monday.

Here are five defense issues that could quickly confront the Biden administration next year.


Withdrawing from Afghanistan

The peace deal with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration at the beginning of the year calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by May 2021.

The agreement conditions that withdrawal on the Taliban fulfilling its commitment to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other terrorists intent on attacking the West.

U.S. military officials say the Taliban has yet to uphold its counterterrorism commitments. They have also condemned the Taliban’s heightened attacks on Afghan forces, arguing that while the attacks are not a violation of the deal, they nonetheless undermine the spirit of the agreement.

Those concerns have not stopped the Trump administration from plowing ahead with drawdowns, though Biden is more likely to listen to military advisers and slow any further reductions in troop levels.

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While pledging to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Biden has said he would leave a small number of special forces in place to conduct counterterrorism missions.


Extending New START

The Trump administration has been negotiating with Moscow on extending the New START agreement, the last treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

The two sides appeared to narrow the gap between their differences just a couple of weeks before the Nov. 3 election when Russia said it would be open to a mutual nuclear warhead freeze in exchange for extending New START for a year.

But key hurdles remain, including getting both sides to agree on verification measures for a warhead freeze.

If the Trump administration cannot secure a New START extension before Jan. 20, or if Russia decides to hold out for a better deal from the incoming administration, Biden would quickly face a deadline.

New START expires Feb. 5, about two weeks after Inauguration Day.

Biden has said he would extend the treaty, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, without conditions. Since the Senate would not have to approve an extension, arms control advocates have said Biden could quickly renew the treaty after his inauguration.


Trump’s Germany drawdown

Under Trump’s plan, nearly 12,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Germany, with some set to deploy elsewhere and others slated to return to the United States.

Despite announcing the plan, the Pentagon still hasn’t worked out key details, meaning Biden wouldn’t have to do much to cancel the pullout.

While the Pentagon has attempted to frame the plan as a strategic repositioning of forces, Trump has repeatedly said it’s in retaliation for Germany not spending more on defense.

Biden’s advisers said before the election that he would review Trump’s decision, and Biden campaigned on a platform of restoring U.S. relationships with traditional allies.

Combine those factors with U.S. lawmakers in both parties panning Trump’s plan, and Biden is widely expected to reverse the Germany drawdown.

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Transgender troops ban

Biden has pledged to quickly reverse Trump’s ban on most transgender service members.

The Obama administration allowed transgender people to begin serving openly in 2016, but in 2017, Trump tweeted he would reverse that policy.

The Trump administration policy, which bars most transgender people from serving in the military, took effect in 2019. The Pentagon disputes that it’s a ban because of some exceptions, but transgender troops and their advocates say it is akin to the defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited openly gay, lesbian and bisexual troops.

The ban could be undone by executive order. In July, the Palm Center, which researches issues of gender and sexuality in the military and opposes Trump’s ban, released a blueprint for how to reinstate open transgender service.

The Obama administration’s policy framework was kept in place in order to grandfather-in transgender service members who came out before the Trump administration’s policy took effect, meaning the ban could be reversed within 30 days, according to the Palm Center.


The defense budget

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Biden has said he doesn’t anticipate major defense budget cuts, and top Democratic lawmakers have said they expect relatively flat Pentagon spending in the coming years.

But those same lawmakers, such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Top Senate Democrat backs waiver for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Wash.), have indicated they expect a fight with the party’s progressive wing over the issue.

Progressives are expected to push for reducing the $740 billion defense budget by anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent.

The results of the election could determine just how much leverage progressive have in the fight. Democrats retained their majority in the House but lost seats, while control of the Senate hinges on the results of two runoffs in Georgia set for Jan. 5.

Whether Biden has to face the fight for fiscal 2021 or fiscal 2022 depends on whether Congress finishes its work on spending bills this year.

The government is operating under a stopgap spending measure that expires Dec. 11. Both Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils virus plan and urges patience | Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden | House to move quickly on COVID-19 relief Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 On The Money: Pelosi says House will move immediately on COVID-19 relief | Biden faces backlash over debt | 900,000 more Americans file for unemployment benefits MORE (D-Calf.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R-Ky.) have said they want an omnibus spending package, rather than another continuing resolution that would keep spending levels largely untouched.

If they can’t come to an agreement and end up kicking the can to the start of Biden’s presidency, the defense budget fight could start shortly after he takes office.