Overnight Defense

Defense & National Security — Defense policy bill inches toward finish line

The White House on Wednesday said it would be a mistake to cut the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate through the annual defense policy bill, but it declined to say if President Biden would veto the legislation over the issue. 

We’ll share more on that plus why the Department of Veterans Affairs is in the midst of a major hiring push, the details of new potential arms sales to Taiwan and what Russian President Vladimir Putin said about his country’s nuclear weapons. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Sign up here or in the box below.

White House: A ‘mistake’ to repeal vaccine mandate

The White House on Wednesday called it a “mistake” to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for military service members through the annual defense policy bill, but officials stopped short of saying President Biden would veto the legislation. 

“What we think happened here is Republicans in Congress have decided that they’d rather fight against the health and well-being of our troops than protecting them,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

“And we believe that it is a mistake, what we saw happen on the NDAA as it relates to the vaccine mandate. Making sure our troops are prepared and ready for service is a priority for President Biden. The vaccination requirement for COVID does just that.” 

Earlier: Jean-Pierre’s comments echoed those of John Kirby, the former Pentagon press secretary and a current National Security Council spokesperson, who told reporters earlier Wednesday that the vaccine mandate ensures military preparedness. 

In a compromise with Republicans, House Democrats are allowing language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that repeals the coronavirus vaccine mandate for U.S. service members a year after it was enacted. 

An upcoming vote: The bill, which lays out how an $847 billion Defense Department top line will be allocated in fiscal 2023, was set to sail through the House Wednesday but was delayed following an 11th-hour push from Black lawmakers for an accompanying vote to protect voting rights.

Read the full story here 


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VA to add staff to handle vets needing toxin treatment

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will be adding staff to keep up with claims made by veterans through a recently passed bill to expand benefits for veterans exposed to toxins during their military service. The VA is set to start processing Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act claims on Jan. 1, 2023.  

The PACT Act was created with the goal of expanding access to care and benefits from the VA to the 3.5 million veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and were exposed to toxic burn pits. 

Since it was passed in August, there have been many concerns about how the VA will make a smooth transition to implement the law without disrupting the department’s other services. 

The focus: Joshua Jacobs, senior advisor performing the delegable duties of the under secretary for benefits of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that hiring was a key part of the VA’s plan to accommodate the expected increase in benefits claimed through the PACT Act, during a hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  

“We are focused on hiring efforts up and down the organization,” said Jacobs. “VBA has been preparing for PACT Act implementation since last year, hiring approximately 2,000 additional employees.”  

Jacobs also said that the VBA plans to hire more people soon, thanks to the toxic exposure fund created in the PACT Act.   

Read more here 

Biden OKs $425M in arms sales to Taiwan

The Biden administration has approved two separate arms sales to Taiwan worth more than $425 million as China has stepped up its threats and aggression toward the island.  

The State Department said the sales are for spare aircraft parts to support Taiwan’s F-16 fighters, C-130 transport planes and other weapons systems that the United States has supplied. The total is made up of $330 million in standard replacement parts and $98 million in non-standard equipment and related accessories and logistics. 

Some background: President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, their first face-to-face meeting during Biden’s presidency. Biden said at a press conference ahead of the meeting that he planned to press Xi on China’s behavior toward Taiwan and U.S. commitments to the island’s defense.  

China considers Taiwan to be part of Chinese territory awaiting reunification and has repeatedly threatened to attack Taiwan in recent months. It conducted a series of military drills near the island in August following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to the self-governing island.  

Pushback: The Chinese government has argued that arms sales to Taiwan violate the U.S. “One China” policy. Under the policy, the U.S. recognizes the People’s Republic of China’s view on Taiwan but pursues “strategic ambiguity” with respect to the island, considering its status to be unsettled. 

Read the rest here 

Putin: Nuclear weapons a ‘factor of deterrence’ 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his reminders about Russia’s supply of nuclear weapons are a “factor of deterrence” in the war with Ukraine, not one of escalation. 

  • Putin told members of the Kremlin’s presidential human rights council that Russia would not be able to use nuclear weapons at all if it agreed to not use them first and then come under a nuclear attack. 
  • “If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he said.  

‘Fully aware’: He said Russian officials are “fully aware” of what nuclear weapons can do and haven’t “gone mad,” but added that the Kremlin’s weapons are “more advanced and state-of-the-art” than what any other nuclear power has. 

Former threats: Putin has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. He said in October that Moscow does not plan to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but President Biden questioned his sincerity, saying the Russian president’s frequent mentions of the nuclear weapons are “very dangerous.”  

Putin has said that he considers four regions of Ukraine, which Russia illegally annexed through internationally condemned referendums in September, to be part of Russian territory. Russia has not been able to maintain control of the entirety of those regions since then, however, as a Ukrainian counteroffensive has allowed the country to retake thousands of square kilometers of the captured areas. 

Read that story here 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

  • The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association will hold its Air Force IT Day 2022 forum, with Air Force Chief Information Officer Lauren Knausenberger, among other officials, at 8 a.m.  
  • The Aspen Strategy Group will host its “Aspen Security Forum: D.C. Edition,” with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.); and other officials, at 9 a.m.  
  • The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research will hold a discussion on “Unpacking the Pentagon’s 2022 China Military Power Report,” with Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for China Michael Chase and Assistant Defense Secretary for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, at 10 a.m.  
  • The U.S. Institute of Peace will hold a virtual discussion on “The History and Future of U.S. Sanctions Policy: What the Evolution of U.S. Sanctions Can Tell Us About Promoting Peace in Ukraine and Beyond,” at 10 a.m.  
  • Cato Institute will host a discussion on “How Much Does China Really Spend on Defense,” at 12 p.m.  
  • The American Enterprise Institute will hold an event on “Standing Up to China Means Standing with Taiwan,” with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), at 3 p.m.  
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a discussion on “Understanding the Broader Transatlantic Security Implications of Greater Sino-Russian Military Alignment,” at 3 p.m.   
  • U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield will speak at a The Common Good virtual discussion at 5 p.m. 
  • French Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne will speak at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

Tags Biden John Kirby Karine Jean-Pierre Taiwan Vaccine mandates Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin white house
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