Overnight Defense: Top Marine warns border deployment could hurt readiness | McSally aims for sexual assault reforms in defense bill | House to vote on measure opposing transgender ban | New warning over F-35 sale to Turkey

Overnight Defense: Top Marine warns border deployment could hurt readiness | McSally aims for sexual assault reforms in defense bill | House to vote on measure opposing transgender ban | New warning over F-35 sale to Turkey
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller warned Pentagon leaders that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE's deployment of active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and transferring Defense Department funds to support the administration's border security efforts is creating "unacceptable risk" to the service's combat readiness.

Neller's is the strongest warning yet from a military leader about the dangers Trump's border security efforts pose to military readiness.

Two new memos: In two memos sent March 18 and March 19, first obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Neller said that he has canceled or reduced planned military training in at least five countries as well as delayed badly needed base repairs due to Trump's "unplanned/unbudgeted" border deployment last fall and emergency declaration funding efforts.

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The exercises that won't be: The Marine Corps will not be able to participate in planned training exercises in Indonesia, Scotland and Mongolia, and will reduce participation in joint Australian and South Korean exercises, Neller wrote to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanTrump admin to discuss sending additional military force to Middle East amid Iran tensions: report Trump admin to discuss sending additional military force to Middle East amid Iran tensions: report Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale MORE.

Neller warned that Marines "rely on the hard, realistic training" of such drills "to prepare for high-end combat," and canceling or diminishing such exercises comes "at a time where we are attempting to double down on strengthening alliances and attracting new partners."

The background: Trump, shortly before the midterm elections last year, ordered active-duty troops to the U.S. southern border, claiming that a caravan of asylum-seekers traveling north from Central America was a risk to national security.

There are now roughly 6,000 military personnel currently at the border, which include 2,100 National Guard and 3,900 active duty forces. 

Trump also declared a national emergency in February in an attempt to allocate funds for his promised border wall after Democrats refused to provide the full $5.7 billion he had requested for the effort. 

The administration is now seeking to move about $6.1 billion from Pentagon coffers -- $2.1 billion from its counterdrug efforts and $3.6 billion from military construction -- to put toward building the border structure.

Hurricane cleanup also affected: Neller also wrote that because of the planned reprogramming he is limited in his ability to transfer money for needed repairs after hurricanes Florence and Michael, adding to the readiness strain.

The two hurricanes severely damaged Marine facilities and housing in North Carolina and Georgia, and the service is currently short $1.3 billion for recovery operations this year.

"The hurricane season is only three months away and we have Marines, Sailors, and civilians working in compromised structures," Neller writes.

Congressional reaction: Following the report on Neller's memos, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedTop voting machine manufacturer urges Congress to make paper records required Top voting machine manufacturer urges Congress to make paper records required Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (D-R.I.), said he hoped Trump would not ignore "clear warning flags" from military officials.

"President Trump has ignored the facts, ignored the experts, and ignored a big bipartisan vote against his views on boarder security. I hope he doesn't try to ignore this memo. Decorated, senior military leaders are raising clear warning flags and trying to prevent our military from being damaged," Reed said.

What's next: Lawmakers now want to know which military construction projects would be postponed or canceled should Pentagon dollars be redirected to a wall.

The Pentagon on Monday delivered to Congress a 21-page list of military construction projects with funding that could be up for grabs, and includes everything from equipment maintenance facilities to training areas to schools for military families. 

But Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he does not yet have a "final list" of projects the Pentagon will re-appropriate money from in order to reach the $3.6 billion requested by Trump. At the time, he was awaiting a list from the Department of Homeland Security that details the projects that the Pentagon is being asked to support as part of the administration's emergency declaration.

Charles Summers, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said Thursday that the Department of Homeland Security has sent the Pentagon its requested list and that Shanahan is now reviewing it.

 

MCSALLY EYES DEFENSE BILL FOR SEXUAL ASSALT REFORMS: Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democratic challenger to Susan Collins announces Senate bid MORE (R-Ariz.) said she will push Pentagon officials to come up with specific plans to address sexual assault in the military in the next 60 days before the Senate begins work on an annual defense authorization bill.

McSally, who said earlier this month that she herself is a survivor of sexual assault committed by a superior officer while she served in the Air Force, said Thursday she would sit on a new task force that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will set up to explore approaches to ending sexual assault in the military.

The plan: Speaking to reporters outside Luke Air Force Base, where she met with commanders to hear their concerns, McSally said she wanted to see new proposals within 60 days, before the Senate takes up the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

"I'm looking backwards from the NDAA markup, right? Because when we do the individual every year, the defense bill, that's where if it's going to take an act of Congress or it's going to be legislative initiatives, we've got to get it included in the NDAA," McSally said. "So I'm looking back from that on the Senate side to see how we can identify initiatives and solutions that we can include in the NDAA."

After disclosing her own assault in a hearing earlier this month, McSally said she had spoken with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the Air Force chief of staff, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Shanahan. McSally sent a letter to Shanahan earlier this week asking for a special task force to address sexual assault in the military; Shanahan responded in less than a day.

About the task force: McSally acknowledged having a member of the legislative branch sitting on an executive branch task force would be "non-traditional," though she said a department-wide approach was necessary to solve complex problems of victims' rights, investigational powers, the chain of command and the judicial process.

"We need to solve this together. So I want to participate in that task force to bring the thought leaders and the experts together to swiftly see what other initiatives we can come up with before we mark up the defense bill in 60 days," McSally said. "They're not waiting for me to get back to D.C. next week. The Air Force is already leading the charge."

 

NEW WARNING OVER F-35 DELIVERIES FOR TURKEY: Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the United States will "have a hard time reconciling" the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey if the NATO ally moves ahead with its purchase of a Russian-made air defense system.

Reuters first reported Thursday that U.S. officials were considering freezing preparations for delivering F-35 aircraft to Turkey should the country buy Russia's S-400 long-range air defense system.

Dunford, who sidestepped a question on whether he supported the United States halting the F-35 delivery, said he hoped the two countries can work through the issue.

A tough issue: "The S-400 is a tough issue. ... I think both the executive branch of our government, the legislative branch of our government, they're going to have a hard time reconciling the presence of the S-400 and the most advanced fighter aircraft that we have, the F-35," Dunford told attendees at an Atlantic Council event.

"Our position has been made very clear to Turkey, and we're hopeful that we can find a way through this, but it's a tough issue," he added.

Finding alternatives: Turkey is a partner in making the F-35 and parts of the jet are built in the country, with an engine overhaul depot in the city of Eskisehir.

Ankara is supposed to eventually get 116 of the fifth-generation fighter jets, but U.S. officials have expressed concerns that the S-400 could be used to gather information on the advanced aircraft.

"The S-400 is a computer. The F-35 is a computer. You don't hook your computer to your adversary's computer and that's basically what we would be doing," Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, told Reuters.

The Reuters report also noted that Pentagon officials were looking at alternatives to Turkey's engine depot.

A history of warnings: A Pentagon spokesman earlier this month warned that should Turkey move ahead with its S-400 purchase, "there would be grave consequences in terms of our military relationship with them."

And Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, told Congress that he would recommend that the United States not "follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that's working with Russian systems."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has said the country has already reached an agreement with the Russians and that the S-400 "is a done deal, there can be no turning back."

  

HOUSE TO VOTE ON MEASURE OPPOSING TRANSGENDER BAN: The House will vote next week on a resolution expressing opposition to the Trump administration's policy banning most transgender people from serving in the military, Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe case for congressional pay raises Approve USMCA before it's too late Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress MORE (D-Md.) announced Thursday.

The expected vote comes after the Pentagon said last week that it will start enforcing the transgender military ban starting in April. Under the policy, transgender people who join the military after the ban takes effect will have to serve as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Hoyer said in a statement that the transgender ban "weakens our national security by undermining our ability to recruit and retain the talented personnel we need."

The resolution, authored by Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyOvernight Defense: Transgender troops rally as ban nears | Trump may call more troops to border | National Guard expects 3M training shortfall from border deployment | Pentagon to find housing for 5,000 migrant children Transgender troops rally as Pentagon prepares to implement ban The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition — Trump rallies for second term on 'promises kept' MORE III (D-Mass.), states that the House "strongly urges the Department of Defense to not reinstate President Trump's ban on transgender members of the Armed Forces" and "rejects the flawed scientific and medical claims upon which it is based."

 

ICYMI

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