Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: The United States is accusing Russia of "probably" violating another control agreement.
The accusation that Russia may not be following an agreement that bans nuclear tests came from public remarks Wednesday by the top U.S. defense intelligence officer.
"The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the 'zero-yield' standard," Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in remarks at the Hudson Institute.
"Our understanding of nuclear weapon development leads us to believe Russia's testing activities would help it to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities," he added.
But when pressed by a reporter on the comment, Ashley said only that "we believe they have the capability to do it the way they are set up" without again saying Russia likely is doing the testing.
Background: At issue is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a United Nations agreement negotiated in the 1990s to ban nuclear explosions. Not enough countries have ratified the treaty for it to enter into force, but world powers, including the United States and Russia, agreed to adhere to a ban on tests. The zero-yield standard in the agreement means any explosions, even those that produce a low yield, are prohibited.
The U.S. accusation that Moscow could be violating its test ban commitment comes at a critical time for U.S.-Russian arms control.
The Trump administration is in the process of withdrawing from a Cold War-era treaty that banned the United States and Russia from having nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with certain ranges. U.S. officials dating back to the Obama administration have repeatedly accused Russia of violating that accord, known as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Meanwhile, a separate Obama-era treaty known as New START that caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia are allowed is up for renewal in 2021. The Trump administration has indicated it wants to expand the scope of the treaty in order renew it, including folding in new weapons not covered by the deal and possibly including China.
Criticism: Arms control advocates quickly criticized the administration Wednesday, saying Ashley presented no evidence to back up his accusation.
"The most effective way for the United States to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is for the Trump administration and the U.S. Senate to support ratification of the treaty and help to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating," the Arms Control Association said in a statement.
"In the meantime, if the U.S. has credible evidence that Russia is violating its CTBT commitments, it should propose, as allowed for in Articles V and VI of the treaty, mutual confidence building visits to the respective U.S. and Russian test sites by technical experts to address concerns about compliance," the association added.
SHANAHAN BREAKS WITH TRUMP ON NORTH KOREA TESTS: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanProtection of critical military benefit shows bipartisanship can work Senators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE has garnered a reputation for toeing the company line.
But on Wednesday, he contradicted President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE's assessment about whether North Korea's recent short-range missile tests violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"I -- let me just be clear, the short -- these were short range missiles and those are a violation of the UNSCR. Yes," Shanahan told reporters traveling with him to Asia, according to the Pentagon's transcript.
Context: Trump has said several times over the last few days he is not bothered by the recent tests after national security advisor John BoltonJohn BoltonFormer Trump officials plotting effort to blunt his impact on elections: report Equilibrium/Sustainability — Fire calls infrastructural integrity into question Will Biden's 2021 foreign policy failures reverberate in 2022? MORE said they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me," Trump tweeted Saturday.
"All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests. There have been no ballistic missiles going out. There have been no long-range missiles going out. And I think that someday we'll have a deal," Trump added Monday in Japan, saying he was not "personally" bothered by the tests.
Trump's comments in Japan also broke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who like Bolton and Shanahan said the test violated Security Council resolutions.
At State: Later in the afternoon Wednesday, the State Department spokeswoman was asked Shanahan's comments at her first on-camera press briefing and whether the department also believes the tests violated U.N. resolutions.
Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus demurred, referring back to comments she made Tuesday at an off-camera briefing that "the entire North Korean WMD program" is "in conflict" with U.N. resolutions.
DUNFORD ELABORATES ON IRAN THREATS: The top general in the U.S. military on Wednesday said he viewed recent threats from Iran that precipitated U.S. deployments to the region as different because they were "more of a campaign" than previous threats.
"What's not new are threat streams. What was new was a pattern of threat streams that extended from Yemen, so threats emanating from Yemen, threats in the Gulf and threats in Iraq," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said in his most detailed public remarks yet on the threats from Iran.
"We also saw in the intelligence that there was a question about both the will and capability of the United States to respond. What I would argue was qualitatively different is we saw something that was more of a campaign than an individual threat," he added.
"And it was the geographic span and the perception that activity would try to be synchronized in time that caused us to look at that threat differently than 40 years, by the way, of malign activity by the Iranians. So malign activity and threats to our forces by the Iranians were not new, but a more widespread, almost campaign-like perspective for the Iranians was what we were dealing with."
Shanahan offers some details: Shanahan also provided a tidbit of detail on the troop deployments the Pentagon announced last week.
The 900 new troops being deployed to counter Iran will be sent to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he said.
Asked about sharing more information on the intelligence behind the deployments, Shanahan suggested he wants to share more but is trying to protect sources.
"I spent a lot of time trying to balance how much can be shared and how much to protect. In a perfect world more is better, but I really need to protect the sources," he said.
Bolton in UAE: Meanwhile, Bolton told reporters traveling with him in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday that alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off that country's coast was carried out with "naval mines almost certainly from Iran."
Bolton was in the UAE ahead of a meeting of regional leaders to discuss the tanker attacks, as well as drone strikes on oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. Iran-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen have taken credit for the drone strikes.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James will discuss her book, "Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Your Success" at 10 a.m. at the National Press Club. https://bit.ly/2VZ4NCR
Acting Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist will speak at the Center for a New American Security at 1:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/2X8SOUF
Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, will talk about Russian resurgence in the Middle East at 2 p.m. at the Atlantic Council. https://bit.ly/30UwKzi
-- The Hill: Furious lawmakers aim to block Trump's Saudi arms sales
-- The Hill: US identifies remains of more American soldiers from North Korea
-- The Hill: Opinion: Why intelligence officials need to brief Congress on Iranian threats
-- The Hill: Opinion: Israeli-Palestinian conflict can end with the New State Solution
-- Reuters: Islamic State suspects sent by U.S. from Syria to Iraq
-- The New York Times: Turkey frees American NASA scientist imprisoned for 2 years